Takashi Murakami at the MFA: Doing Away with the Western Gaze
by Rachel Kubrick
November 1st, 2017
Takashi Murakami’s Dragon in Clouds--Red Mutation, courtesy of the Museum of Fine Arts Boston website
Us Bostonians (or, more appropriately for college students, temporary ones) are very fortunate to live in a city with such an incredible art institution as the Museum of Fine Arts. In particular, we are blessed with what the MFA calls “the world’s largest and finest collection of Japanese art outside Japan.” Therefore, it is exhilarating to see this incredible collection placed in a new and exciting context with the art of Takashi Murakami, one of the most important living Japanese artists, in Takashi Murakami: Lineage of Eccentrics.
(On another note: if you have yet to take a moment to yourself in the Buddhist Temple Room in the Japanese galleries, especially during midterms or finals, add it to your college bucket list)
This exhibition follows in the footsteps of a few other popular exhibits in recent years, in which non-Western art is shown side by side with its modern or contemporary counterparts. For example, we saw this in the blockbuster show, China: Through the Looking Glass, of summer 2015 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. This exhibit featured Chinese-inspired Western couture whimsically integrated with the Met’s Chinese collection to allow viewers to see the direct connection between the inspiration and the inspired. Two years later, in the summer of 2017, the MFA itself brought to life similar connections, but this time with a focus on Matisse and how his collection of African, Islamic, and Asian artwork influenced him. Despite the successes of these shows, finally with Lineage of Eccentrics does a major encyclopaedic museum use its powers to show how a contemporary non-Western artist is influenced by their own culture, rather than looking at Eastern art through the eyes of white creators.
Not only does the Murakami exhibition show off the contemporary art of Japan, but it also puts Japan’s contribution to academia on center stage. The show revolves around two discourses-- the one between Murakami’s art and that of Japanese history, as well as one between Murakami and the influential Japanese art historian Professor Nobuo Tsuji. The two collaborated on the book Battle Royale! Japanese Art History in 2014 in which Murakami would make art reacting to Tsuji’s art historical picks. A similar collaboration occurs here in which the two have chosen the works on view together. The exhibition also frequently discusses the importance of its namesake and Tsuji’s book Lineage of Eccentrics, published in 1970, and its influence on the study of Japanese art history and Murakami himself. Between the heightening of these two great men in Japanese art and the work of the Senior Curator of Japanese Art, Anne Nishimura Morse, the MFA has finally provided a platform to show Asian art through the eyes of its kin. Any possibility of problematic Orientalist undertones has been removed from the picture.
Takashi Murakami: Lineage of Eccentrics begins and ends with two utterly captivating works, both inspired by the Eccentric painter Soga Shōhaku of the Edo period. The opening work, Transcendent Attacking a Whirlwind, was commissioned for this exhibit and is a sight to behold. It is overwhelming but wonderful, featuring a collision of color patterns, graphic techniques, and freakish figures in the form of Shōhaku’s singular style. Before you leave the exhibition, be prepared for a gorgeous final gallery placing Shōhaku’s 1763 painting Dragon and Clouds with Murakami’s 2010 counterpart Dragon in Clouds--Red Mutation: The version I painted myself in annoyance after Professor Tsuji told me, “Why don’t you paint something yourself for once?” The nearly sixty foot painting was produced in a mere 24 hour period, but the final product is not rushed or lacking. Rather it is confrontational yet contemplative, commanding your attention but in a spiritual manner, just as the Shōhaku work would have in its original temple context. As stated in the comical title, Murakami’s giant piece is painted purely in shades of red, adding a new lens for representation to the traditional black ink of the Japanese artistic canon.
While the exhibition primarily consists of 2D works, do not miss the excellent sculptural art of Murakami and his predecessors. Murakami’s Oval Buddha Silver, his only purely 3D piece in the show, provides a revolutionary way to consider the Buddha visually. Of the traditional Japanese art, the netsuke are easily missable in a display case on the wall, but be sure to keep an eye out. These miniature ivory sculptures are intricately detailed, and were used for men’s clothing. The one featuring a badger defeating a hunter with an unconventional weapon of choice was a personal favorite.
Finally, the Superflat paintings provide the backbone of the show as Murakami’s most recognizable works. His distinguishable iconography, including a cast of characters like Mr. DOB, Kaikai, and Kiki, never fails to be charming, intriguing, as well as aesthetically pleasing. On leaving the Museum of Fine Arts’s Gund Gallery, my only complaint was that Lineage of Eccentrics did not include more pieces, both of Murakami and of the Japanese Eccentrics that influenced his innovations.
Takashi Murakami: Lineage of Eccentrics can be seen until April 1, 2018 at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.