Winter Landscape, China, 14th century.

January 31, 2016

Tradition and Change in East Asian Art

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To my eye, there is at least one major obstacle to curating an exhibition of non-Western traditional artists: striking a balance between educating viewers about the artistic traditions of a foreign culture and letting the art just speak for itself. The Herbert F. Johnson Museum’s new exhibition — Tradition, Transmission and Transformation in East Asian Art — ultimately teeters over to the former side of that conundrum, though it also certainly serves as a thorough exploration of and initiation to East Asian ink painting for a lay audience. That is, the works of art which TTT presents — regal, sprawling, ascetic or harmonious and almost invariably gorgeous — oftentimes seem threatened, in their ability to paint a variegated and brimming East Asian artistic history, by the wall’s expository blurbs which seek to do it for them.

The exhibition’s purported goal, as stated on the wall of the Moak Gallery at its immediate entrance, is to explore “how cultural images and artistic styles that originated in China were adopted and adapted in Korea and Japan.” By capitalizing on the sheer mass and breadth of the Johnson’s collection, TTT makes impressive strides towards doing just that. Spanning three rooms and comprised of what must approach (if not more than) 40 different papers and scrolls, the exhibition certainly serves as an adequate compendium of a region’s shared, almost 600-year artistic tradition.

The Johnson’s basement walls are populated by works ranging in creation date from the 15th to the 20th century, whose subject matter stretches from religious (Buddhist), to philosophical (Confucian), to naturalistic (the Four Gentleman of East Asian botany), to poetic themes. Their countries of origin are China, Japan and Korea. As such, empty wallspace is rare. The infinite array of scrolls, hung behind their protective sheets of glass in an at times claustrophobic manner, dodges monotony purely by virtue of the art’s unimpeachability: brushstrokes as tried and scenes as true as those common to East Asian ink painting would be hard to present poorly. The paintings, despite their close proximity, speak volumes not only as epitomical tokens of the shared tradition presented, but as individually stunning works even when removed from their context. The bold affronts of black flora to the stark faces on Korean canvases; the reserved, metaphoric mastery of a crafted scene from Chinese poetry; the impeding immediacy of Hirose Daizan’s increasingly sovereign Japanese style — all justify the “tradition” in the exhibition’s title.

TTT’s trouble begins, however, when its latter “T”s — “Transmission” and “Transformation” — are brought into question alongside “Tradition.” Though the artwork surely constructs and presents the shared artistic history of these three cultures, it falls short in conveying what exactly the “transmission” and “transformation” from China to Japan and Korea was. Yes, TTT does inform its viewer that a complex communication between the art of these three countries did occur, and that each painting in the exhibition is somehow indicative of that trend — each gallery’s verbal onslaught made sure of that. But, even for its dedication to explicating every last scroll hanging on the Johnson’s walls, TTT fails didactically. Not because its instruction is sparse, but because it’s overbearing.

Each and every work, beneath its title, date, artist, etc., has a several-hundred-word description. And while these blurbs are universally concise, clear and informative, there are simply too many of them. As I strolled through the exhibition, the critic in me, for completion’s sake, felt obliged to read every word. The dilettante (a persona it is safe to assume most museum-goers favor) felt bogged down to the point that reading even one paragraph amidst the dozens seemed daunting. As a result, with each subsequent work seen and essay read, my focus sapped. So, when I would finally unearth a sentence which might have enlightened me on one vital aspect of the transmission and the transformation from Chinese to Japanese ink painting, I would already be too listless after having read hundreds more to really absorb what I read. As such, the “transmission” and the “transformation” of TTT felt more like tangents, ill-wrought — or, more aptly, overwrought — digressions from the exhibition’s ultimate focus: the “tradition.”

On this front, though, Tradition, Transmission and Transformation succeeds. For all of its words and all of its art, its nature is not ultimately unendurable, but comprehensive. If this article can be of any use, then it will be by recommending how one should go see TTT. If you are going to steep yourself in anything there, let it be the art. And for your interest’s sake, let it tell its own story. Tradition, Transmission and Transformation in East Asian Art is on display until June 12.

Troy Sherman is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected]