Getting the Most out of that Art Exhibition, Vol. 11. Perverse Japanese Art: From Zen Painting to Heta-uma
Who hasn’t sometimes wondered what they should be looking at when they attend an art exhibition? Here, art writer, Makoto Murata, shares his insights into the unique aspects we should look out for with each featured exhibition.
The Eccentrics that Put the Fun into Japanese Art
A thread of eccentricity and unconventionality runs through Japanese art. One aspect of this eccentricity is the hesomagari tradition currently on display in the Perverse Japanese Art: From Zen Painting to Heta-uma exhibition at the Fuchu Art Museum.
Art all over the world is appreciated for the skill of the artist, and the beauty and splendour of the work. But in Japanese art, for some reason, works that can most aptly be described as unskillful, unattractive or dreary, show up from time to time. This is what’s known as hesomagari bijutsu, or “perverse art”.
The best-known of this tradition is the style known as Zenga, or Zen painting. Zen may be a form of Buddhism, but it is certainly a rather perverse form. Followers of Zen believe that the truth of things cannot be conveyed in words. Instead, they sit cross-legged and seek enlightenment by meditating on Zen questions. Nothing about these Zen questions makes any sense, though. They’re riddles that completely defy logic.
For instance, there’s the one about the head priest who never did any repairs on his temple. One rainy day, the roof starts leaking and he tells the monks to bring something to catch the water. One monk brings a bucket, and is scolded, while the other brings a sieve and is praised. This perverse thinking cannot be understood by means of logic. Thanks to Zen, incoherent exchanges that make no sense have come to be called Zen riddles in Japanese.
Zen paintings are often created in this tradition, so they tend to leave you scratching your head in puzzlement. A famous one is the ensō, a black ink circle on white paper. The ensō doesn’t need to be perfectly round. Rather, if the ensō is a bit distorted and slightly rough, it holds a deeper significance. If you meditate on the nature of human existence in front of one of these circles, you will begin to perceive the universal truth. Come to think of it, a negative image of the ensō, with the black and white parts reversed, would appear exactly like the recently captured image of the black hole.
In any case, in Zen there are no answers, only questions. In that sense Zen paintings have much in common with modern art. Ensō paintings could be considered minimalist or conceptual art. Incidentally, the Edo Period Zen priest Sengai Gibon (1750 – 1837) wrote the words, “Eat this and drink tea”, next to his zen circle painting, likening the circle to a steamed bun. It might be a bit of a leap from a steamed bun to a black hole, but it could be argued that the Zen circle encompasses everything that lies between. And a black hole is, after all, just something that swallows everything else.
The Perverse Japanese Art exhibition includes a large number of paintings by Zen priests.
Sesson Shūkei’s (1504 – 1589) Akubi Hōtei; Kōbai; Hakubai (Hōtei stretching; crimson and white plum blossoms), depicts splendid crimson and white plum blossoms in the left and right panels, with a plump, grubby-looking, bare-bellied Hōtei (god of contentment) stretching and yawning between them in the central panel. He’s something of an anti-climax, really.
Another painting of Hōtei in this exhibition, this one by Hakuin Ekaku (1686 – 1769), depicts Hōtei pulling the characters fukushū umi muryō (infinite sea of good fortune) out of his bag. The characters topple onto their side as the naked Hōtei dances about to his heart’s content.
Elsewhere, a parade of characters from Sengai Gibon rival satirical manga artist Shiriagari Kotobuki’s modern datsuryoku-kei characters. Sengai Gibon’s pictures can surely only have been intended as humour.
A typical example of this type of datsuryoku-kei (sometimes explained as “slice of life”) picture is the modern heta-uma (bad-but-good) style of illustration, which emphasises the more unflattering elements of the human psyche.
Heta means “bad”, and uma(i) means “good”. At first glance, a heta-uma picture appears badly drawn, but closer inspection reveals a layer of meaning that makes it good. In fact, heta-uma ranks above work that is just blandly good (which would be classified as uma-uma). The polar opposite of this is uma-heta – pictures which appear well drawn but are revealed to be bad. Uma-heta pictures rank even below heta-heta pictures, which is to say even below pictures that reveal no level of skill whatsoever. From best to worst, this classification system goes in the order of heta-uma, uma-uma, heta-heta and finally, uma-heta. I’m not sure who decided on this ranking, but I find myself strangely in agreement.
Heta-uma became popular in the 1980s. Works by two of the two best-known artists of the movement, illustrator Yumura Teruhiko and manga artist Ebisu Yoshikasu, are also on display in this exhibition. As well as these, a real must-see in this exhibition are those works that can be said to be the original heta-uma works, the pioneers, if you like, of the genre.
I refer, of course, to paintings by none other than the august third-generation Tokugawa Shogun, Iemitsu (1604 – 1651), as well as those by his son, fourth-generation Ietsuna (1641 – 1680).
First let’s take a look at, Iemitsu’s Usagi-zu. (Painting of a Rabbit). So…this is a rabbit? Crammed into the bottom of the frame, it looks rather more like a bug – although, granted, it does have long ears. At first glance it appears to be wearing some sort of long dress, but apparently it’s actually perched on a tree stump. As a child the shogun was tutored in art by a painter from the esteemed Kano School of painting. His Excellency either ditched classes, or this painting is deliberately bad.
Other similarly awe-inspiring works include Iemitsu’s Hou’ou-zu (Painting of a Phoenix), often mistaken for a sparrow, and Ietsuna’s mascot character-like Fowl. And to think, these paintings were mounted as scrolls and preserved for future generations as “paintings from the palace”.
Let us finally turn to some of the more “bizarre” pieces in the exhibition. These are works that are somehow “off-key”, that fail to achieve harmony, giving them a sense of the weird or uncanny.
A painter long associated with the tradition of weird art in Japan is Itō Jakuchū. In his Fukurokujū-zu (Painting of the Tall-headed God of Wealth and Longevity), the way this character’s head is stretched upward is so extreme as to be almost cute.
What’s more, as this is a scroll painting, it would have been gradually unrolled from the top when being shown to an audience. At first, a half-circle would appear, making the audience think of a Zen circle or the moon (or perhaps just a bald head, unrelieved by any features). Finally, when the face was revealed, the audience would see that it was Fukurokujū. The quizzical expression on the face of the God of Wealth and Longevity only adds to the charm.
Kishi Ganku’s (lived 1749 – 1839) Kanzan Jittoku-zu (Painting of Kanzan and Jittoku) is also an example of the bizarre. Kanzan and Jittoku are a legendary pair of monks from T’ang Dynasty China who were said to have lived in a cave. Because of their hermit-like existence, they are often depicted in Zen paintings. Although they look like a pair of beggars, they are always depicted laughing. This is creepy enough, but the way Ganku has them looking directly out of the frame takes it to the next level.
This exhibition boasts no fewer than ten paintings of Kanzan and Jittoku (or of one, or other, of the pair). Why do such bizarre characters hold such appeal? To return to the original question, if art is supposed to be skilfully executed, beautiful and splendid, what is it that makes us want to look at the opposite – art that’s poorly executed, unattractive and dreary? Perhaps because there’s something perverse in us that simply can’t look away when faced with the grotesque and bizarre? And so, it is to satisfy precisely this perverse human tendency, that the Perverse Japanese Art: From Zen Painting to Heta-uma exhibition has been put together
※Tokugawa Iemitsu’s “Phoenix” and Kishi Ganku’s “Kanzan Jittoku-zu” will be on display during the first half of the exhibition period.
Venue: Fuchu Art Museum, 2F, Sengenchō 1-3 Fuchu, Tōkyō
Dates: Saturday, March 16 – Sunday, May 12, 2019.
Hours: 10:00〜17:00 (Entry until 16:30)
Closed: Mondays (but open on April 29 and May 6. Closed instead on Tuesday, May 7)
A graduate in Fine Arts from Tokyo Zōkei University, Makoto Murata worked in the editorial department at the magazine, Pia, before setting out as a freelance art writer. He lectures part-time at Tokyo Zōkei University and is the principal of the BankART School (post-graduate school of art) in Yokohama. He has authored a number of books on art in Japanese.
Judy Evans is a high school teacher of English and Japanese, and a Japanese-English translator. She has a Bachelor of Arts in Japanese and Art History and has studied production horticulture and landscape design. Judy has a keen interest in the internet environment and has administered websites for a number of organisations. She lives on a small farm in rural New Zealand and is a frequent visitor to Japan.