The Continuity of Japanese Aesthetics: Creativity within Tradition, by Iwasawa Oriental Art

By Kazuko Kameda-Madar

The Continuity of Japanese Aesthetics: Creativity within Tradition was published in November 2012 to celebrate the 30th Anniversary of Iwasawa Oriental Art in Los Gatos, California. At 109 pages, this book is a bilingual (English and Japanese) introduction to the splendor of contemporary makie (lacquer ware), featuring selected works by Maehata Gahō (b.1936) and his son Maehata Shunsai (b. 1964). The Maehatas are inspired by the great artists of the past. The makie technique, in which designs are created using gold and silver powder over lacquer, dates back to Japan’s Heian Period (794-1185).

Maehata Gahō was a son of the eighth head of makie artist’s family, and began his training in the traditional manner when very young. He later established the Mugen-dō studio (Ishikawa Prefectural Cultural Heritage) to promote his mission of creating the makie art that is admired by today’s audiences and will be valued by future generations.

Following a brief description of makie (urushi = lacquer), this book contains a delightfully illustrated catalogue of makie art. Its fantastic layout showcases works by the Maehatas, juxtaposing each with the original that inspired it. For instance, the Funahashi Makie Writing Box with Motif of Pontoon Bridge by Maehata Gahō is juxtaposed with the makie box by Honami Koetsu which was his source of inspiration.

According to the foreword “The Practice of Copying in Japanese Art” by Melissa Rinne, the associate curator of Japanese art at the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, this book emphasizes the significance and functions of copying tradition in Japan. Rinne explains how a “copy (in Japanese, utsushi, mosha, or mozō) of an existing artwork might be made for a variety of purposes,” by giving several historical examples, such as the Two World Mandalas in the Jingoji temple in Kyoto and the treasures stored in the Shōsōin depository in Nara. By replicating the works of predecessors, the traditional techniques and style, and the accompanying aesthetic considerations are accurately conveyed. Rinne points out that the artistic techniques and knowledge regarding the materials, otherwise, would have been lost for centuries, if the artists had not produced those copies. Not only does the copying tradition play an important pedagogical role, enabling apprentices to learn the master’s skill, but it also preserves the cultural heritages for the artists of the future.

Creativity within Tradition includes short essays by a variety of experts in the field of art. Christy Bartlet, the director of the Urasenke Foundation in San Francisco, and a tea practitioner, discusses the artistic relationship between the copying and tea ceremony. In “Utsushi and Chanoyu,” she writes that copying is a dialogue between the artists of the past and the present. She explains that the process of copying is akin to the literary technique of honka dori, or allusive variation in which an author purposefully references earlier works in waka (Japanese poetry). Since the Heian period, Japanese poets have consciously incorporated the words and contexts used in the past in their own verses. In so doing, the new work is steeped in the historical significance and increases its artistic value.

Lynn Elliott Letterman linked the traditional Japanese notion of utsushi and the contemporary American concept of appropriation in “Appropriation: Thoughts on Utsushi from an American Contemporary Artist.” She is a California-based artist and shares her Euro-American viewpoint in attempt to understand the Japanese copying practice.

The act and works resulting from utsushi or copying have been denigrated as lacking “originality” or “creativity.” It is also difficult to separate utsushi from so-called gibutsu or gansaku (fakes, forgeries and counterfeits) that are created with the intention to deceive consumers. This book, however, makes a great contribution by challenging the stereotypes attached to utsushi while examining the issues of reproduction, allusion, adaptation, and pedagogy in the Japanese art tradition. The book concludes with an afterword by Kumiko Iwasawa, the owner of Iwasawa Oriental Art. As Iwasawa mentions, this book is available in digital and in print versions. It is important to reconsider the issue of copying, as this book does, since we are living in the age of digital reproduction.

About Kazuko Kameda-Madar

Kazuko Kameda-Madar is Lecturer of Art History at Hawaii Pacific University in Honolulu and also Visiting Researcher at the Ritsumeikan University in Kyoto. She completed her MA at University of Hawaii at Manoa in 2002, and PhD in Japanese Art History at University of British Columbia in 2011. She has studied in Kyoto University (2003-4) and worked at the Kyoto National Museum (2008).

Her publications include, “A Sixteenth-century Korean Landscape Painting with Seal Reading ‘Bunsei’” Kaikodo Journal XXX (Spring, 2014): 24-29; “Sugimoto Hiroshi’s Japanese Art History: Spirituality and Cold War Japonisme” Journal of 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art, Kanazawa, R Issue 5 (March 2013): 66-79; “A Set of Four Guardian Hanging Scrolls and the Transformation of the Twelve Devas Pictorial Tradition in Medieval Japan” Kaikodo Journal XXVIII (Spring, 2012): 21-27; “An Iconology of the Orchid Pavilion Gathering: the Images of Yang Mo and Yu Yun” Art Research Center Ritsumeikan University Journal, Art Research Vol. 12 (Mar. 2012): 3-22; “Transmission of Meanings: A Study of Shen Wai Shen (Body Outside Body) by Xu Bing” Xu Bing and Contemporary Chinese Art: Cultural and Philosophical Reflections (New York: SUNY Press, 2011):147-176; ”Ideology and Transformation of ‘Kyokusui-en’ Theme in Genre Painting: Study of Tsukioka Sessai and Kubo Shunman” Fūzoku kaiga no bunkagaku [Cultural Studies of Genre Painting] (Kyoto: Shibunkaku Press, 2009): 243-273.

Kameda-Madar is a co-editor of an anthology Utsushi no chikara: Sōzō to keizoku no matorikkusu [Power of utsushi: Matrix of Creation and Continuity] Kyoto: Shibunkaku Press, 2013, and a contributor of ‘Theorizing Imitation in a Global Context’, the special issue of Art History, Association of Art History, (London: September 2014).