Exploring Monochromaticity: Japanese Modern Art at the MFA

Exploring Monochromaticity: Japanese Modern Art at the MFA

Written by Kaelen Encarnacion

In a hushed, secluded corner of the Museum of Fine Arts (MFA) Art of Asia wing, lies the “Black and White: Japanese Modern Art” exhibition: a showcase of works that embodies the monochromatic aesthetic of post-war Japan. Centered around their newest edition, Inoue Yūichi’s large-scale calligraphy on “Ko,” meaning “Filial Piety,” the exhibit explores the simple yet profound power of black and white, and how this style of art has re-emerged from the ashes of World War II to remain widely influential in Japan today.

With its origins in Zen Buddhism, the monochrome aesthetic first became popular in the 14th through 16th centuries. Here, it pervaded many aspects of Japanese art such as calligraphy, poetry, and especially painting. With the Zen Buddhist values of simplicity and austerity at its core, the monochrome aesthetic exudes an aura of candor and intensity as you move through the exhibit. The works featured combine these classical ideas with the more modern style of Abstract Expressionism, a movement that reached prominence in America in the 1940s and 1950s as a reflection of post-WWII society defined by subjective emotional expression through spontaneous actions (think Pollock and de Kooning). The gallery at the MFA perfectly embodies the idea that both old and new techniques can be brought to light with simple black and white imagery.

For instance, “Sound” (pictured above) is a piece showing three simple, yet vastly different brush strokes to demonstrate both the features of traditional ink work and abstract expression. This was created by calligraphist Shinoda Toko, who, according to the exhibit description, felt restricted by the conservative style of previous calligraphy masters and subsequently moved to New York during the 1950s to develop her own style through the increasingly-popular movement of Abstract Expressionism. In a similar way, “Study in the Classical,” a white marble structure that incorporates the warmth of humanity with the traditional Japanese form of a wave, was created by Isamu Noguchi, who moved to America and became inspired by Abstract Expressionist Franz Kline’s work in the 1950s.

The most encapsulating piece of the exhibit, however, may come from Inoue Yuichi’s “Ko,” (pictured below) which uses large, emphatic brush strokes to emphasize the humanity and individuality that came as result of the exchanges between ancient Japanese art styles and the Abstract Expressionism movement. These artists, together with Yoshihara Jiro, Yagi Kazuo, and Sugai Kumi whose works are also featured in the exhibit, have all found a way to showcase classical Japanese art forms while incorporating their own personalities and the leading avant-garde movement of the 1950s.

In its isolation, “Black and White: Japanese Modern Art” proves to be the perfect spot for quiet contemplation and contrasts from the rest of the museum’s exhibits in more ways than one. The lack of large crowds peeking over each others’ heads to get a better glance at the intricacies of Murakami’s murals or the lively colors of Monet’s landscapes grants this small corner a sense of solemnity and meditation. Additionally, the stark departure from the multitude of colors typically splashed across every wall of the galleries gives it an even more striking quality of intense and silent power, further demonstrating the duality of expressing human emotion which can come off as either vulnerable or empowering ‒ or perhaps both.

Many of the patrons felt drawn to the surprising complexity of the pieces despite their exclusive use of black and white. Referring to “Petit Noir,” (pictured above) one of Sugai Kumi’s three lithographs which demonstrate deconstructed and abstract Japanese characters, one such patron, a tall and contemplative man named Tucker Girard, said, “I like the black and white aesthetic for one thing… Even though it’s very flat, it has a lot of depth to it. You know, with all the textures in it… You see right into it; it’s really amazing.”

Such is the imagery of the entire exhibit: there is emotion in each brushstroke, and breath and texture in each piece. Despite the lack of “living” colors such as vibrant greens, deep reds, or sky blues, the art exudes a sense of profound life and freedom, movement and change. Through their reimagination of traditional Japanese art and their incorporation of the rise of individualistic art as a commentary on post-WWII society, the artists and their works in this exhibit are truly something to stop and stare at on your next trip to the MFA. It’s open until April 1st, located in the Japanese Print Gallery (Gallery 278A).

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