Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Takashi Murakami

The tantalizing sculptures and brilliantly colored paintings of Takashi Murakami (born in 1962) reveal the artist's enthusiasm for seemingly disparate interests. His attraction to contemporary popular culture, especially anime (animation) and manga (cartoon), also reveals his great love of drawing, first discovered in his youth. As a university student, he studied traditional Japanese painting and earned a degree in nihon-ga, a sophisticated style that developed in nineteenth-century Japan as a synthesis of influences, including Chinese and Western art forms. Murakami has thoughtfully integrated each without diminishing the significance of - or his respect for - either. Most important to his work is his desire to acknowledge his identity as an artist of Japan.

In his essay "A Theory of Super Flat Japanese Art," Murakami expounds on art historian Nobuo Tsuji's idea that formal characteristics such as flat, shallow space and bold linear elements found in the ambitious traditional paintings of Japan are also evident in contemporary art forms such as animation. Murakami recognizes the international presence of post-1945 American art as well and has exceeded the vision of American Pop icon Andy Warhol, who blurred the boundaries between popular and fine art. Murakami has his own "factory" of assistants and has created Mr. DOB, a cartoon character notable for its compliance with Japan's marketing strategy of cuteness and which has its own copyright and product line.

Murakami's greatest affinity is with the work of artists known as "eccentrics" from Japan's Edo period (1615-1868) and, especially, the work of Soga Shohaku (1730-1781). The MFA has some of the best examples of this extraordinary artist's work, and this exhibition includes two pairs of Shohaku's scrolls. Formal relationships exist between Shohaku's bold strokes of ink and, for example, Murakami's "splash" paintings where liquid is carefully rendered across flat backgrounds. Further, the humor of Shohaku's emphatic rendering of recognizable and imaginary characters has not been lost on Murakami. But perhaps the greatest influences on Murakami have been the spirit of Shohaku's life and his willingness to go his own way while never leaving behind tradition.