Color them funny

Ancient Japanese scroll paintings get an anime-style interpretation in Takashi Murakami’s show at MFA Boston


It was a Saturday, and MFA, Boston, was teeming with people. My friend and I had four hours in hand, and I deemed the time just fit for covering the works by the masters. Until, someone suggested, don’t miss the art show at the Lower Ground. So we kept aside the last 30 minutes for Takashi Murakami. And boy, weren’t we glad we did!

Before I tell you about the show, there are certain things that you should know about Mr Murakami. He is a contemporary artist who is often called the ‘Andy Warhol of Japan’. Even if you are not much into art news, you would have seen his works on, surprise surprise, Kanye West’s album cover, Graduation. The guy even brought out his own movie called Jellyfish Eyes.

If you clicked on those links, you would have seen how his characters are anime and Manga-inspired. But Murakami did his Phd in Nihonga — a traditional style of Japanese painting which strictly pertains to traditional techniques and materials. It is as far from anything young or contemporary as it can get. He sensed that if he needed to establish himself in the Western artworld, he will have to expand his horizons. This is where he used his genius to use the conventional Japanese paintings and give birth to something extraordinary out of them.

Here is an example.

This is a picture of the artwork Transcendent attacking a whirlwind done by 18th century artist Soga Shohaku in 1764. It’s been done on a six-panel folding screen.
This is an artwork inspired from the one above, done by Murakami. The motifs of the whirlwind and of the man are clearly adapted from the one done by Shohaku.

His works are smile-evoking and shout out the question: Why so serious? Every corner of the gallery screams fun. The colors, the animated figures, and just the mammoth size of each painting are enough to have viewers stand mesmerized. Seriously, one of the paintings is spread across six panels and is 59 ft wide.

All of the work that are on display have been inspired from the Japanese masterpieces that reside at MFA, which acclaimed historian and author Nobuo Tsuji helped Mukarami select. According to an article in The New York Times, the show Takashi Murakami: Lineage of eccentrics “puts 13 of the artist’s paintings and sculpture, as well as multiple studies, in conversation with 50 Japanese artworks dating from the late 10th through 19th centuries.”

His works, though inspired from the masterpieces, strip what one might perceive as seriousness from the yellow-tinted scrolls, and bring in a wave of freshness with a splash of neon. If you notice carefully, the motifs are terrifying – those of dragons, and giant waves and angry-looking men, but in Murakami’s world, they are all reduced, or should I say enhanced, into jolly and friendly creatures that a three-year-old can watch while being fed.

This oval Buddha made of sterling silver is inspired from Shaka, the historical Buddha – Late 10th early 11th century that is in the MFA collection
Ink and color on golf -leafed paper, a 17th century work featuring poppies, by School of Tawaraya Sotatsu. Scroll below for Murakami’s version of it.
Isn’t that cool?
There are poppies everywhere. Below and…
Dragon in clouds by Takashi Murakami, inspired from the 1763 painting by Soga Shohaku of the same name. Apparently, for the above painting, professor Tsuji asked Murakami to paint it all by himself instead of using his assistants. In the spirit of the moment, Murakami decided to go for it – and did the whole thing himself over a course of 24 hours. He said in an interview in The New York Times, that he decided to skip the part where he meticulously designs and plans, and instead took straight to the canvas as if he was drunk. The result was a beautiful gripping piece.

You walk out the show feeling a little lighter, with an illusion, or maybe not, that life is a little less complicated than you think. If in Murakami’s world, dragons can be flashy and funny, and Buddha, a boy with bangs, it can be in yours too.

The exhibition is on at Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, through April 1.