Lineage of the Eccentrics – Takashi Murakami and Soga Shohaku’s Dragon and Clouds
Throughout the Japanese Edo period, the discussion of lineage was so important that artists would take proud of the skills that styles that they followed. This built the foundation of the similarity in subjectivity, forms, styles, and techniques of artworks throughout those years. This is different for the eccentrics since their styles and techniques were so different that it is hard to identify who their teachers were. Soga Shohaku was identified as an eccentric from the Edo period. It is worth noting that artists’ eccentricity was not only granted in recent art history, it is an identity given by the audience during the Edo period to differentiate the artist’s individuality. Takashi Murakami is a well-known contemporary artist that presents his eccentricity in the artwork. In many of his recent artworks, he paid his respect to many eccentric artists during the Edo period, such as Soga Shohaku. The Museum of Fine Arts recently opened an exhibition, putting together works of Murakami and Shohaku, to show the lineage of the eccentrics from the Edo period to the contemporary artist. This short paper argues that Murakami’s eccentricity is not only under the lineage of Japanese art but the whole art history in the globe by exploring this so-called lineage of the eccentricity between Murakami and Shohaku and analyzing the Takashi Murakami museum exhibition in the Museum of Fine Arts, especially focusing on their works on Dragon and Clouds (figure 1, 2).
The influence of past and present artists is an important element in works of Soga Shohaku and Takashi Murakami. In my previous paper, Soga Shohaku’s paintings in the 1760s, I conclude that Soga Shohaku’s style did not come out of blue – he did not invent his style, but he incorporated the techniques of the Kano school, the Rimpa artists, and the Soga school to form his own uniqueness. Thus, it is unnecessary to assign one particular art school as his teacher. Takashi Murakami’s artwork was created under a similar context. As a contemporary artist, the convenience of modern technology enabled him to see works from the Edo period, such as Soga Shohaku, as well as recent artists, such as Jackson Pollock. It is very likely that his style is influenced by both Japanese art history and contemporary art world. Richard Prince, a pioneer of appropriation art in the 1970s, raised the questions of the originality of artworks. He claimed that memory played such an important role in art creation that it is hard to assign the contemporary artists with their own creation in art styles, techniques, and subjectivity.
Prince’s claim is worth discussing, because if we appropriate this idea in Japanese art during the Edo period, there would be very little originality left. According to Cunningham, a scholar in the Japanese art history, during the Edo period, students of the masters would start by copying the masters’ works and later on, students’ creations in the masters’ workshops would be signed by the masters’ name, as a way of recognizing the students’ achievements. This shows how the major art schools passed down their school name, by reassuring the techniques and styles of depictions were preserved by their students. Thus, as the better the students mimic the works of the masters, the more likely their achievements would be recognized, the lineage of a style was created. According to Richard Prince, it is not originality. However, Japanese artists take proud of their teachers and schools, because this creates an identity for them; also because this is their styles create consistency in art productions.
If we put the Dragon and Clouds from Shohaku, and the Dragon in Clouds - Red Mutation from Murakami together, the similarities in compositions, and subjects would be very obvious to be observed by the contemporary audience. Both artists have the dragon head taken almost half of the screen and they all focus on depicting the head of the dragon. The popping out eyes, the significant teeth, and the twisting hands are the similar features that the audience can find in both artworks. Both dragons are situated in a high abstract background, as the artists use strong and thick brush strokes to depict the clouds in the background. On the leftist part of Shohaku’s work (figure 3), the clouds are featured with highly gestural twists on the paper. The overlaying of inks creates blury but enormous depiction of clouds. On the right panel (figure 4), the clouds are featured in strong motion as the viewer can follow the circular gestures of the artist. As my previous paper identified, these strong gestures are influences from Soga schools during the Edo period. Similarly, in Murakami’s work, the audience can also observe the strong gesture works. Around the tale of the dragon (figure 5) and the lower left part of the canvas (figure 6), there is a clear motion of splashing the paint onto the medium. This reminds the viewer of the works from Jackson Pollock, who is famous for his grand gestures in abstract expressionistic artworks. Thus, it was not only Japanese artists, that influence the creation of Murakami, his works also took elements from contemporary foreign artists.
According to the museum, Murakami painted this artwork after Professor Nobuo Tsuji told him, “Why don’t you paint something yourself for once.” Thus, it is interesting to see why Murakami decided to choose dragon as the subject and chose to use these techniques to paint the dragon since they are very deliberate choices by the artists. Apart from the deliberate choice of depicting dragon image, the reoccurring circular gesture is also part of the eccentricity of Murakami’s work here. The circular gesture is the reoccurring element that can be identified in many places in Murakami’s dragon image: in the dragon eyes, the clouds above his head, and the clouds on the upper left side. This reminds the audience of Van Gogh’s The Starry Night (figure 8), where he also employed circular gestures for clouds and stars in the background.
It is easy for the museum to assign the lineage of Murakami back to the Edo period Japanese artists, because of the similarity in subject matters and compositions. When looking at his works closely, many elements that viewers do not see from Shohaku’s work emerges. It is important to acknowledge that those eccentric elements that differentiate Murakami from Shohaku were not Murakami’s own inventions, but technique appropriated from other foreign artists. It is not that Murakami can’t produce original work as Prince would argue, but his work incorporated so many elements and features from his precursors and that made him who he is and what his art is about. Thus, when we put the word “eccentricity” to a broader context – the eccentric thinking in the globe and in the history of art, we can confidently put Murakami under this lineage of eccentricity.
Figure 1: Soga Shohaku, Dragon and Clouds, 1763, ink on paper. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
Figure 2: Takashi Murakami, Dragon in Clouds - Red Mutation, 2010, Acrylic on canvas mounted on board. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
Figure 3: leftist part of Soga Shohaku, Dragon and Clouds, 1763, ink on paper
Figure 4: right panel of Soga Shohaku, Dragon and Clouds, 1763, ink on paper
Figure 5: the tale of the dragon, right part of Takashi Murakami, Dragon in Clouds - Red Mutation, 2010, Acrylic on canvas mounted on board
Figure 6: lower left bottom of Takashi Murakami, Dragon in Clouds - Red Mutation, 2010, Acrylic on canvas mounted on board
Figure 7: Jackson Pollock in creation. (Encyclopaedia Britannica)
Figure 8: Vincent van Gogh. The Starry Night. 1889. Oil on canvas. Museum of Modern Art, New York City.
Michael R. Cunningham. (Sep., 1984) Byōbu: The Art of the Japanese Screen. Cleveland Museum of Art. The Bulletin of the Cleveland Museum of Art, Vol. 71, No. 7, pp. 223- 232
Kennedy, Randy. (Dec., 2007) If the Copy Is an Artwork, Then What’s the Original? Art and Design. New York Times. http://www.nytimes.com/2007/12/06/arts/design/06prin.html
Murakami's Monumental Dragon. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston website: http://www.mfa.org/visit/mfa-guide/takashi-murakami/dragon-in-clouds-red-mutation?modal=true