Gifts from Japan

With her usual self-confidence, Dr. Ilana Singer, director of the Tikotin Museum of Japanese Art, has mounted three new exhibitions

jap art 88 224 (photo credit: Tikotin Museum of Japanese Art, Haifa)
jap art 88 224
(photo credit: Tikotin Museum of Japanese Art, Haifa)
With her usual self-confidence and curatorial élan, Dr. Ilana Singer, director of the Tikotin Museum of Japanese Art, has mounted three new exhibitions, each one a gem providing its own visual impact. Characterized by exquisite costumes created by Ruth Falk - a devotee of Japanese poetry, art history and culture - Paper Theater, Noh Dolls, is a display of craftsmanship at its highest level. According to the exhibition catalog, Falk, now in her 70s, became a passionate aficionada of Japanese culture at an early age, but it was only after retirement and intermittent trips to Japan that she began to explore in depth the country's ethnic and social phenomena. To create her dolls, Falk begins with an armature of thin florist's wire onto which she attaches cardboard tubes to form the figure's body and extremities. Heads, hands and feet are defined with cotton wool and special white paper painted to extract the theatrical characteristics of the specific Noh character. Her thorough research is very much in evidence in the flamboyant use of various ersatz designer silks, cottons and brocades, all hand-painted by Falk into shimmering designs on white paper from historical motifs accumulated during her investigations. Arranged as individual players or in groups depicting scenes from Noh dramas, such as a quartet of seated monks from Komachi at the Mountain Barrier Temple and Three Shinto Priests at Takasago, each of the 30 dolls stands approximately 26 centimeters high. The Young Warrior Atsumori, a fabulous doll dressed in a striking red, umber and gold brocade kimono, flared ivory pants and wielding both a sword and a fan, comes from a drama by the same name and reflects a Noh concept that the play's central figure is not a living person but the spirit of a person who died in tragic circumstances. The spirit, having faced insurmountable snags moving from the land of the living to that of the dead, must be appeased by those encountered on the voyage. Based on Buddhist and Shinto ritual and ancient ceremonies, including dance, the minimalist and symbolic dramas were enacted through a medium that intervened between the dead and the gods. The cast of a Noh performance, ranging from several actors and choral groups to only two (the shite - an apparition appearing as a deity, woman, boy, old man, animal or demon - wears an appropriate mask; and the waki - an itinerant monk or pilgrim, who is alive during the performance - does not wear a mask), is all male. Male actors also play female roles. The origins of the Noh theater date back to the religious dances, folk festivals and the music of the aristocratic courts as early as the 12th century, but Noh was refined into what it is today during the 14th and 15th centuries. Early on, the Japanese discovered what artistic media in the West adopted in the 20th century - minimalist and symbolist productions. Wearing expressionless masks, Noh actors deliver their lines with restraint and accompanied by bodily gestures that are extremely slow and emblematic. The range of masks and richly-textured and colored costumes recreated by Falk to emulate these theatrical roles are magical and delicate, ranging from the exceptional Dancing Kami of Sumiyoshi to the awesome Two Chinese Lion-Dogs and a classic form for a young woman performing in Izutsu: The Well Cradle. An evening of three to five Noh plays dealing with gods, warriors, beautiful women and demented people is presented in a pre-determined order and lasts anywhere from four to six hours. Visiting the Noh Dolls exhibition will require no fewer than four hours, but be sure not to miss it. THE NATURE of the Beast, Animals in Japanese Art is an exhibition that revived memories of my art-school days when, with our venerable Polish drawing teacher, Mr. Csoka, we would hold class at the Central Park Zoo every Friday morning. On our first visit, pads and charcoal in hand and bursting with artistic energy, we were asked only to thoroughly observe the tigers and the apes - their gestures, textures and anatomical features. After an hour or so, and ready to begin sketching, we were sent packing with instructions that on Monday, back in our studio, we would then draw the the animals. This enlightened Zen practice is refined in many drawings and prints on paper and silk in the Tikotin show that also includes dozens of scrolls, netsuke and decorative boxes. Mostly from the Edo period (1603-1868) the images portrayed include elephants, lions, tigers, rabbits, horses and monkeys according to traditional modes or representation, reality or imagination. The latter, best described by Totoya Hokkei (1780-1850) in a stunning print describing Oniwaka Killing a Giant Carp, contains a most fluid composition of man riding the fish colored in a range of grays and pale siennas. Reality is handled in many pictures but a couple stand apart. Rokusono Tsunemoto and a Deer is a small drawing by Yashima Gakutei (1786-1868) depicting the samurai's back view wearing a blazing kimono and facing the frontal view of the animal. Another rather realistic impression is Tiger and Bamboo (1834), a decorative scroll by Nangaku Miwa, who describes the great feline as benevolent sort of creature, furry and friendly as he emerges with utmost diligence from the vertical stalks. The 20th-century artist Akiyama Iwao (b. 1921) is represented by several woodblock prints of owls that range from studious to curious and all in black and gray feathers with oval red eyes on a white field. An earlier master, Hokusai (1760-1849), shows several prints and drawings, including a fun page showing several rabbits rendered in swift brush-and-ink-line drawings. His ability to master the essential forms and spirit of this playful animal with precision and grace and without the use of washes or auxiliary descriptive techniques was extraordinary. Other masters of Edo and ukiyo-e are also represented including Hiroshige (1797-1858) and Harunobu (1724-1770) whose Bushe Kills a Leopard is a tour-de-force composition, as both man and beast are entwined, in a seemingly eternal yin-yang design. Several fine netsuke (especially one of a grazing white horse), decorative boxes and tsuba (protective sword grip) round out a most spirited and enjoyable museum experience. THE THIRD exhibition, Traditional Japanese Musical Instruments, is fashioned around the three types used in traditional Japanese music - drums, stringed lutes and wind instruments, most importantly the flute. Culled from the museum's archives, the display includes several kinds of drums and a sampling of several different lutes supported by a score of woodblock prints and drawings: Hiroshige's Ushiwaka Playing the Flute on Gojo Bridge; Noh Musicians, attributed to Torii Kiyonaga (1752-1815); Shunsho's (1726-1792) Kabuki Actor Nakamura Matsuei with Koto (a 13-string sitar); and an ink drawing, Shamishen Player by Hokusai. More of an ethnological display than one which explores the aesthetic qualities of Japanese art, the exhibition nevertheless provides insight, from the beautifully fashioned percussion instrument to a pair of simple wood and skin drums, into a little-known aspect of Japanese culture. All three exhibitions are worthy of a visit. (Tikotin Museum of Japanese Art, Rehov Hanassi 89, Haifa).