“Ghost” and “Snow” in the Japanese Pavilion
In celebration of its 20th anniversary, the Pavilion for Japanese Art is showing paintings acquired in the past two decades. A couple of the works are just-added and first-rate.
The 2009 Japanese Art Acquisition Committee purchased Shibata Zeshin's Ghost, said to be the finest of Zeshin's four treatments of the theme. Japanese ghosts traditionally have disheveled hair, a gaunt face, and no lower body. Zeshin's interpretation is more a femme fatale in the spirit of Western symbolism. The spook levitates out of the picture, and the framing band of fabric also fades toward the bottom, as if the painting itself is a "ghost." That's not all. The support, though not the picture itself, is an exercise in trompe l'oeil. The surrounding brocade is not real fabric, nor are the two white "silk" bands at top.
In several respects, "Ghost" evokes Edvard Munch's woodcut and lithograph Madonna. Munch too has an illusory frame, incomplete on the bottom, surrounding a wild-tressed maiden. No date is given for LACMA's new painting, but Zeshin died in 1891, four years before the first woodcut versions of Madonna.
In Suzuki Kiitsu's Snow on Cypress: Full Moon—a gift of Janice and Charles Holland and Lin and Franklin Torn—the least important things get the most emphasis. Lichens command more attention than the tree they grow on; a momentary drop of wet snow upstages the eternal moon. In turn, Kiitsu's hard-edge Rimpa techniques preempt the subject matter. Between these paintings and the Furuta Oribe plates, LACMA's Japanese department really has something to brag about, in a tough time for museum acquisitions.