Curators will often describe an exhibition as a labour of love, but Japan Supernatural is more like a labour of fun. Melanie Eastburn has enjoyed working on the show for about a year-and-a-half, but has been carrying the idea around for much, much longer. Over the past few decades the Japanese fascination with ghosts, demons and monsters has made its way around the world, becoming part of a global popular culture. For cruelty, perversity and unspeakable cuteness – the Japanese artists can’t be beaten.
The Art Gallery of NSW has come up with an imaginative presentation for a show that should have a very broad appeal. The pre-publicity has focused on the gigantic works of contemporary artist, Takashi Murakami, but the substance of the display relies on Ukiyo-e masters such as Yoshitoshi, Kyosai, Kuniyoshi, Kunisada and Hokusai.
If the gallery entertained any doubts about the public’s interest in these prints, which date mainly from the 19th century, they should be encouraged by the raging success of the National Gallery of Victoria’s Hokusai survey of 2017.
The first major piece one encounters is Night procession of the hundred demons by Toriyama Sekien, which introduces a cast of supernatural beings – the yokai – that will become increasingly familiar during the course of the show. Viewers are eased into this world via a large-scale interactive wall piece that allows them to call up a bewildering horde of nasties.
For fans of Japanese horror movies and anime many of these yokai will already be known – from a cast of sinister foxes, cats and raccoons; to the Kappa, that resembles a goofy turtle; to the Rokurokubi – whose head snakes out from the top of her kimino at the end of a long neck that twists and turns like a boa constrictor.
Thanks to the Yasuko Myer Bequest the AGNSW already owns an important series of 36 prints by Tsukioka Yoshitoshi (1839-92) which illustrate a famous ghost story. These have been joined by other works by this great artist, including dynamic images such as Kusunoki Tamonmaru vanquishing the old badger (1860), which uses subtle gradations of ink to embed ghostly figures into the black backdrop of the action.
Among other famous, eye-catching prints it’s impossible to ignore Utagawa Kuniyoshi’s Mitsukumi defies the skeleton spectre conjured up by Princess Takiyasha (1845-46), which is featured on the cover of the catalogue. It shows a gigantic skeleton looming over a samurai drawing his sword in preparation for combat.
Of the contemporary artists, Miwa Yanagi’s staged photographs based on fairy tales tap into the gruesome nature of stories that have been diluted by generations of retellings. Yanagi’s versions will scare the children.
As for Murakami’s much-hyped contribution, the new work acquired by the AGNSW for an undisclosed, multi-million dollar sum, is big but not beautiful. It arrived too late to be included in the catalogue but is prominently displayed in a separate room, flanked by two free-standing figurines. At 10 by 3 metres it’s actually dwarfed by another Murakami work, In the Land of the Dead, Stepping on the Tail of a Rainbow (2014), borrowed from the Broad Art Foundation of Los Angeles, which measures 25 by 3 metres.
If the sheer scale of these paintings seems astonishing, one needs to remember that Murakami runs an art factory with more than 300 employees. It’s patently absurd to compare the AGNSW’s new acquisition to Jackson Pollock’s Blue Poles(1952) as a “destination work”. Pollock’s painting is the work of a single artist that has established a lasting niche in modern art history. Its purchase for the National Gallery of Australia was an act of conviction and courage on behalf of then-director, James Mollison.
By contrast, the Murakami painting is a mash-up of images drawn from Ukiyo-e prints, produced by assistants according to the artist’s design. It’s no special achievement to buy a large picture at the top of the market by one of the world’s most fashionable and expensive artists. This will never be a work of historical importance, it’s a crude, flashy commodity, a piece of public entertainment.
Compared to the small images of the Ukiyo-e printmakers Murakami’s vast pictures look incredibly superficial – which is hardly surprising for the artist who coined the term “superflat”. It suggests that with Japanese art size does matter, with bigger not necessarily being better.
Japan Supernatural: Ghosts, goblins and monsters, 1700s to now
Art Gallery of NSW, 2 November, 209 – 8 March, 2020
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 2 November, 2019