Pop art reframed at MFA’s Takashi Murakami exhibition

A painting by artist Takashi Murakami is displayed at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. (Courtesy Rebecca Tang)

In the primarily Western-dominated discourse of contemporary art, it is easy to attribute the “superflat” world of Japanese artist Takashi Murakami largely to the legacies of postmodern masters such as Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein. Admittedly, Murakami’s glossy and mass-produced works much resemble American pop art stylistically. But it would be illogical to assume that Murakami uses the pop aesthetics to pose the exact same critiques against materialism as his American counterparts. This is because Murakami’s works are essentially continuations of traditional Japanese art, which celebrates two-dimensionality and decoration. The recent exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts (MFA), “Takashi Murakami: Lineage of Eccentrics, A Collaboration with Nobuo Tsuji and Museum of Fine Arts, Boston,” disassociates the pop aesthetics from its often critical and political connotation assigned by the West, and explores it within the dimensions of Japanese art history.

The MFA welcomed Takashi Murakami at the exhibition’s press preview and the Late Nites event on Oct. 13. The exhibition opened to the public on Oct. 18. The displayed works include a mix of the MFA’s unparalleled collection of traditional Japanese art and Murakami’s paintings and sculptures inspired by the Edo-period eccentric painters featured in Professor Nobuo Tsuji’s book “Lineage of Eccentrics.” Some Edo-period paintings in the MFA’s collection have directly influenced several of Murakami’s exhibited works; Professor Nobuo Tsuji, a renowned Japanese art historian, has been Murakami’s mentor for years. The three parties also collaborated in curating the exhibition — video guides recorded by Anne Nishimura Morse, the William and Helen Pounds Senior Curator of Japanese Art at the MFA, Takashi Murakami and Nobuo Tsuji are available to visitors for free.

The monumental Murakami painting “Transcendent Attacking a Whirlwind” (2017) vividly illustrates the artist’s roots in old Japanese traditions. The painting is a theatrical recreation of a painted screen of the same name by the Edo-period painter Soga Shohaku.

The 17th-century original depicts a scene of three men withstanding an approaching whirlwind. The painting represents this dangerous situation in a humorous way. The whirlwind is a highly stylized motif in Chinese and Japanese paintings. It represents a strong wind using a neat spiral, thus transforming the natural force’s otherwise aggressive connotation into a whimsical one. Just to the right of the whirlwind, a standing man confidently faces the coming disaster with a smile on his face and a sword in hand. His confidence dwarfs the whirlwind into a mere foil to his strength instead of a fatal threat. The two figures toward the right end of the screen are blown to the ground. However, their bodies twist so unnaturally that they seem to be performing some juggler’s dance. Through the artificial representation of both the danger and its targets, Shohaku frames the scenario as a mere play, evoking the Chinese proverb “life is but a stage.”

Murakami’s version of “Transcendent Attacking a Whirlwind” takes this playfulness to the next level. The light reflected by the smoothly polished surface of the painting and its dazzling colors keep the audience eyes busy; the painting’s scroll-like composition disorientates the audience even more.

Ancient Chinese and Japanese artists illustrated history on handscrolls. The 13th-century “Night Attack on the Sanjo Palace,” displayed in this exhibition exemplifies a standard handscroll. Read from right to left, it starts with a text introduction, features a long illustration of a set of progressing events in the middle, and ends with a text conclusion. Adopting such traditional narrative format, Murakami’s painting leaves its audience overwhelmed by the juxtaposition of four scenarios distinct in time and space in one composition. As disorienting as the “whirl” part of the scenario might seem, the painting’s immaculately precise outlines create an overall sense of order.

Many paintings throughout the Japanese art history consistently make fine lines their dominant visual elements. The Heian-period “The Burning Cauldron,” displayed at the Murakami exhibition, is a prime example of traditional Japanese artists’ penchant for lines. This quintessential language of Japanese art literally and figuratively confines the disorder in Murakami’s painting, reducing the painting from a representation of real danger to a simulation of it. In this way, Murakami’s “Transcendent Attacking a Whirlwind” mirrors its inspiration’s humorous treatment of reality.

Using similarly colorful and flat forms, Warhol and Lichtenstein mockingly parodied their contemporaries, yet Murakami venerates the old. The collaborated exhibition at the MFA cautions us against telling contemporary art in a unifying master narrative that features a set range of cultural, political and aesthetic concerns, despite the world’s increasingly globalized landscape.