Japanese art exhibition bows to tradition

Farm workers plow, dig and harvest plants under the misty shade of a mountain.

The bucolic watercolor evokes the Edo period of the 19th century in Japan, a prosperous era known for its explosion of art, especially in the form of woodblock prints.

But self-taught artist Chuzo Tamotzu painted the scene in New Mexico in 1952, titling it “Sandias.”

The “Unfolding Traditions” exhibit at the Albuquerque Museum features traditional Japanese woodcuts alongside their contemporary heirs. The exhibit will be on display in the museum’s Works On Paper gallery until September 29.

Nature and the human body intertwine in Japanese art, from 19th century prints to modern artists using traditional techniques in abstract forms.

Born in Japan, Tamotzu emigrated to the United States in 1920, living in New York City before moving to Santa Fe in 1948, where he worked for the New Mexico Arts Commission. The artist also made the ink drawing on paper “Self-portrait Cutting Hair” (1963).

“It’s interesting because it’s an intimate portrait,” museum curator Josie Lopez said. “There’s still that traditional style when you look at the brushstrokes and the shadow. It is still connected to traditional Japan.

“Pilgrim Women in Enoshima at the Opening of the Benten Festival” by Utagawa Hiroshige is an 1852 woodcut depicting the “floating world” (ukiyo). The term conjured up an imaginary universe of wit, elegance and extravagance – with connotations of wickedness, hedonism and transgression. The floating world culture flourished in Yoshiwara, the red light district of Edo (modern Tokyo), the site of many brothels frequented by Japan’s growing middle class.

“Enoshima is an island off the coast of Japan that has held this religious significance for over 1,500 years,” Lopez said. “There was a five-headed dragon and this goddess (Benten) who defeats the dragon. You can see these bodies of water which represent purification.

Benzaiten, the goddess of music and entertainment, is registered on the island. Followers believe that she raised it from the bottom of the sea in the 6th century.

Before the Chinese introduced Buddhism to Japan, Shintoism was the dominant faith. In the Shinto belief system, the Kami, or deities, are believed to exist in nature. In this print, water is one of the seven lucky gods.

Likewise, “Station 7 (Okegawa)” by Keisei Eisen, 1834-1842, represents the floating world with roads connecting Edo (now Tokyo) to the rest of Japan. Sixty-nine stations provide food and accommodation for travelers.

“You see farmers and laborers and nobles, so he’s really capturing this pilgrimage,” Lopez said.

In contrast, “Big Orange Bite” by Albuquerque resident Emi Ozawa, 2018, keeps the Japanese tradition of balance in a contemporary, minimalist form with paper on board.

“They’re very geometric and very abstract,” Lopez said. “She brings color, lines and shadows.”

The exhibit features 12 works from the museum’s permanent collection and includes Japanese artists, immigrants, and Japanese-born American citizens.

Life in New Mexico

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Reggie S. Williams

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