This afternoon I visited the Kobayashi Kokei exhibition at Tokyo’s National Museum of Modern Art on the outskirts of the Imperial Palace grounds, near Takebashi subway station. To the Western eye at least, Kobayashi Kokei’s works might not seem entirely at home in a museum of modern art – a sentiment apparently shared by most Japanese young people, conspicuous by their absence. Alive between 1883 and 1957, Kobayashi was a nihonga (literally, ‘Japanese painting’) artist who, (according to the blurb) while being brought up in the tradition, ‘purified his expressions to the utmost’ and as ‘a result of having thoroughly pursued realism in painting, Kokei’s sensibility is certainly fit to be called modern’ - a rather defensive assertion of his modernity at best.
The quote on the ticket says ‘kamoku ni shité niou ga gotoku’: ‘With few words, as if savoring a fragrance’. That is to say, Kokei’s works, for all the assertions of their realism, have an ethereal quality that speaks of reality surely but intangibly. What a head-on contrast to the last Japanese painter I wrote an entry on, Okamoto Taro, with his ‘Art is an explosion!’.
I have included a copy of the entry ticket with the above quote on it and what the organizers feel to be an ideal expression of the quote’s sentiments, i.e. of Kokei’s ethos: women at a well. To me this was an example of that aspect of his work that could least be called modern. It represents quite accurately, however, the traditional Japanese idea of beauty, i.e. what they call ‘kirei’.
‘Kirei’ (kee-ray) is a word that incorporates the English words ‘beautiful’on the one hand and ‘clean’, 'regular', 'tidy', 'pure' on the other. Therefore as an expression of an aethetic, it represents a somewhat different idea from that of the typical Western aesthetic. I remember when I first came to Japan, my head full of romantic notions of the Japanese as an inherently artistic race, I was often mystified – more often aghast – when, for example, a typical soulless, cheaply built, two-a-penny architectural artifice would be referred to in passing as ‘kirei’. I soon realized that it was the craft that had produced the straight lines that made for its sharp silhouette (sharpness being, I promise, its only possible virtue) and the lack of time that had passed to weather its nondescript pastel paintjob that was being praised. Any artistry that might have produced something evocative was completely subsumed in the word – in such cases to the point of invisibility. To suggest, however, that the Japanese do not appreciate beauty in the sense of a complex confluence of aesthetic qualities that make for an almost unidentifiable sense of satisfaction would be ridiculous. But the traditional Japanese aesthetic considers such a sense of beauty only enhanced by the geometry of simplicity, definition and perfection: in a word, of finish.
Kokei's human characterizations with their clear simple outlines and ethereal pallid colors are very much at the expense of the organic and therefore received little more than my passing attention after having studied the first half dozen. The only one that really struck me was the very first one: a mother and child, that managed to convey an almost miraculous sense of dimensional depth on what, obviously, was a flat sheet of parchment. Much better than the finished works were his sketches. At their best they had the sinuousness and fleshiness, the sense of crisis, of Renaissance art. Here there was evidence of the artists physical hand, of the graphite of his pencil, the hair of his brush - of the process. However, while it didn’t disappear, it was literally clothed in the finished work almost to the point of extinction. A possible parallel is the Japanese idea of honne (‘true sound’) and tatemae (literally: ‘built front’). Honne is what one truly feels, tatemae is what one expresses. Confusing the two is considered nothing but brash and irresponsible. However smooth one’s tatemae, however, no one is (or, at least, should be) fooled. The honne lies behind it to be perceived and, as much as possible, respected – not least for its filteredness, its‘beautiful clothing’. His best works, in my mind, were his flowers: tendrils and stalks weaving the most tentatively sensual of crossing paths, crowned with masterpieces of floral perfection as meticulously wrought as they were almost sexually charged – the reds, purples, and oranges tongues between perfect teeth.
His paintings of chinaware were also, for some reason, particularly memorable. Perhaps it was the sense of playfulness, the extraordinary vividness, the wonderful mixture of symmetry and, framed in it, bold effulgence.
Kokei’s works are not well represented in English, but works on his genre, nihonga, are.