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Strike A Pose! The Human Form in Japanese Art

May 26 – September 13, 2009

Depicting the human form is one of mankind’s strongest artistic impulses. For thousands of years, human beings have continually sought out ways to understand their world and their place in it by way of artistic expression. This timeless and universal inclination stems from an inherent human desire to discover the origin and purpose of life, mystery of birth and death, and the workings of the human body. In Japan this impetus began around 2000 BCE (“before the common era”), when the earliest ancestors fashioned human-shaped figurines from clay to express the ambitions and values of their society.

Some of the oldest surviving representations of the human form in Japan are haniwa, clay mortuary figures that were placed on top of large, keyhole-shaped burial mounds around 1,500 years ago. The 6th-centuryhaniwa figure displayed in this exhibition represents a warrior or a minor official. While his guileless expression may be one of the figure’s most endearing features, haniwaportrayed archetypes common to their society, and thus provide an important record of the customs, rituals, and beliefs of the Japanese during that era. Since the 6th century, Japanese artists have depicted the human figure as a means of conveying abstract concepts, rather than merely portrayed the human form in a realistic manner. Many of the works in the present exhibition exemplify this Japanese aesthetic, and employ the use of iconography as a way to personify Japanese ideals.

One such image is a 20th-century pair of folding screens, titled Tagasode, which offers a romantic image of a reclining woman near a garment rack casually draped with kimono. The work emulates a genre of 16th-century screen paintings in which these garments alone signify the beautiful woman’s ephemeral presence. In addition to epitomizing ideals of Japanese feminine beauty, some representations espouse standards of masculinity, cultural values, and express human emotions. Among these are woodblock prints, or ukiyo-e, of the 18th and 19th centuries which often took as their subject matter historical figures and scenes from thekabuki stage, as well as idealized beautiful women, or bijin. Similarly, bronze sculptures cast in the late 19th or early 20th century were often modeled after legendary heroes, some of which served as role models for Japan’s male youth. An example on view depicts an episode from the 15th-century chronicle of a celebrated vendetta, The Tale of the Soga Brothers.

The human form in Japanese art is also expressed in religious icons meant to epitomize in tangible terms notions of the divine. Japan’s native religion, Shintō, comprises a cosmology of deities that were described in mythologies in very human terms, but they were not depicted in art until after the introduction of Buddhism in the 6th century, as painter Odake Kokkan (1880 – 1945) has done in The Enticement of Amaterasu. The introduction of Buddhism to Japan from China via India around 552 introduced an extensive pantheon of deities from the various manifestations of the Buddha to lesser gods called bodhisattvas (Japanese: bosatsu) and arhats (Japanese: arakan or rakan) that assist in mankind’s salvation. Stone relief carvings displayed in the exhibition represent various examples of Shintō and Buddhist-inspired folk sculpture.

Talismans, emblems of hope and good fortune that depict or derive from images of popular Buddhist and Shintō deities are typically personified in human form. Among the most popular are Okame, a plump, round faced woman of humorous demeanor who is based on the Shintō goddess Ama no Uzume no Mikoto that appears in The Enticement of Amaterasu, the Buddhist deity Daikoku (Sanskrit: Mahakala), and the figures identified as Fukusuke and Fukurokujū, which serve as commercial talismans of good fortune. Fukusuke is typically shown with his hand raised in a beckoning gesture, inviting customers, and the prosperity they promise, into an establishment.

Abstract representations of the human form include Daruma (Sanskrit: Bodhidharma), the 6th-century patriarch of Zen Buddhism who is rumored to have sat immobile in meditation for nearly a decade that he lost all use of his arms and legs. Portrayals of Daruma in human form usually emphasize the moment of his enlightenment, and depict the wide-eyed deity as an oval-shaped, limbless torso. The most abstracted mimicry of the human form is the lathe-turned wood dolls called kokeshi. They depict the human form essentially as limbless, cylinder-shapes with round heads, yet they have great charm imbued to a large extent by their simple, open facial expressions, like those of the haniwa.

While the human form in Japanese art often epitomizes abstract notions, it also serves to honor and recognize the simple nobility of human existence. From simplified, abstracted shapes to realistic, lifelike representations, the present exhibition explores the great tradition of depicting the human form throughout Japanese history and culture.

Funding for Strike a Pose! is provided by the Henri and Tomoye Takahashi Charitable Foundation, the Mary Livingston Griggs and Mary Griggs Burke Foundation, the State of Florida, Department of State, Division of Cultural Affairs and the Florida Arts Council, and the Palm Beach County Tourist Development Council.