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Natsume Soseki and the Visual Arts

Posted in Art,Japanese literature,Putting One Foot in Front of the Other by bourdaghs on the May 25th, 2013

Last week in Tokyo I visited the ongoing “Natsume Soseki and the World of Art” (夏目漱石の美術世界展) exhibit at the Tokyo Geijutsu Daigaku Bijutsukan, near Ueno Park. The show continues through July 7 and is well worth your while. The exhibition website (Japanese language only) is here and includes many images from the show.

It’s a big exhibit–over 200 pieces arranged across eight different rooms. The first room, “Preface,” centers on Hashiguchi Goyo’s striking Art Nouveau style illustrations and cover designs for the first edition of I Am A Cat (Wagahai wa neko de aru, 1905-6). I’ve seen most of them before, but having them displayed together alongside early sketches really brings out their wonderful strangeness.
neko

“Chapter One” focuses on mostly European-style painting, including a number of works discussed in Soseki’s early fiction. “Chapter Two” turns its gaze on East Asian pieces, including some mentioned in various novels and stories. “Chapter Three” includes 42 works connected to the novels Kusamakura (1906), Sanshiro (1908), And Then (Sore kara, 1909) and The Gate (Mon, 1910). It includes, for example, John William Waterhouse’s 1901 oil painting “The Mermaid,” which Sanshiro and Minako encounter and discuss in Sanshiro. This room includes one painting especially created for the exhibit: Sato Eisuke’s reconstruction of “Mori no onna,” the portrait of Minako that Sanshiro gazes at in the closing pages of the novel. The style of Sato’s rendering matches my mental image of the painting described in the novel, but it seemed much too small: reading Soseki’s description of the work, I imagine an enormous panel-sized painting, but Sato’s version is less than one meter tall, I think. Here’s a video snippet:

“Chapter Four” explores Soseki’s relations with contemporary artists. The organizers have assembled a large number of works that were displayed at the 1912 “Bunten” exhibit, about which Soseki serialized an extended review essay in the Asahi newspaper. They include quotations from Soseki’s evaluation next to each of the works. Perhaps it’s just me and the strong emotional bond I feel for Soseki, but there’s something about standing in front of a painting that you know he gazed at one hundred years ago and comparing your own reaction to his. Both Soseki and I were struck by Sano Issei’s “Yukizora,” a folding screen depicting a flock of birds scattered across the withered branches of a tree, :
佐野一星

“Chapter Five” collects works by painters who were close to Soseki, inlcuiding Asai Chu, Nakamura Fusetsu, and Hamaguchi. I was struck by Tsuda Seifu’s 1931 portrait of Natsume Aiko (Soseki’s daughter), wearing a bright red dress and smiling broadly. There is also a striking watercolor of a chrysanthemum in the guise of a letter that Masaoka Shiki sent to Soseki in 1900.
正岡子規

“Chapter Six” includes 24 of Soseki’s own paintings. He was a serious amateur painter working mainly in watercolors and ink. I was curious to see that all of the works included came from the collection of Iwanami Shoten. I can understand why the various manuscript pages included in the exhibit would be in the hands of Iwanami, Soseki’s publisher. But why do they also own many of his artworks, which were not meant for publication or public display? The exhibit concludes with a room that covers more of the elegant artwork from the early editions of Soseki’s books.

The museum is a short walk from Ueno Park, the setting for a number of scenes in Soseki’s fiction. We are in a stretch now where every year marks the centennial anniversary of important works by Soseki, and the urge to try to retrace his footsteps is only natural. See if you can resist the urge to stand alone in front of “Mori no onna” and whisper silently, “Stray sheep.”

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