Takashi Murakami at the MFA

Detail of a new painting, Transcendent Attacking a Whirlwind. Takashi Murakami, 2017.

There is a new exhibition on Japanese contemporary artist Takashi Murakami at the MFA that is definitely worth making the trip! I was lucky enough to see it as part of a press preview, and learned a lot about the artist that I hadn’t know. For many people, including myself, Murakami’s work is familiar from collaborations with Louis Vuitton, Pharrell, and others. Although I was aware of how connected his work is with pop-culture, it was illuminating to learn how he has been influenced by historical Japanese painting and art history.

This exhibition was a chance to learn more about Murakami and his background, and masterpieces from the museum’s Japanese art collection are a perfect context. The show is organized around three pillars — the artist Murakami, the influential Japanese academic Nobuo Tsuji, and the institution of the MFA, with whom Tsuji has had a very long professional relationship. At the press event and for the opening, Murakami and Professor Tsuji were present for a talk with MFA curator Ann Nishimura Morse, and their relationship was one they even described as almost father and son.

Tsuji’s book Lineage of Eccentrics (1970) details certain Japanese painting traditions that were extremely influential for the young Murakami (he called it his “Bible.”). In fact, a recent painting from Murakami which closes the exhibition references a painting from 200 years earlier, which was on the cover of Tsuji’s book. This painting takes up a whole wall of the room, and was painted by the artist alone rather than in his typical workshop collaborative style. (In illustration of the close relationship between artist and academic, this painting is titled “Dragon in Clouds—Red Mutation: The version I painted myself in annoyance after Professor Nobuo Tsuji told me, “Why don’t you paint something yourself for once?”)

Dragon in Clouds—Red Mutation: The version I painted myself in annoyance after Professor Nobuo Tsuji told me, “Why don’t you paint something yourself for once?” (Detail), Takashi Murakami, 2010. © 2010 Takashi Murakami/Kaikai Kiki Co., Ltd. All Rights Reserved. Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Dragon and Clouds, Soga Shôhaku (Japanese, 1730–1781), Japanese, Edo period, 1763
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. William Sturgis Bigelow Collection. Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Because of his desire to work at a very large scale, Murakami has established a workshop and views himself almost as a producer or director. Every work that is a collaboration is signed by all who took part, and the large scale allows him to create pieces that are extremely detailed and immersive. Even when the topics are new, the format recalls Japanese painting tradition, such as in the gold background below.

Kawaii‑vacances (Summer Vacation in the Kingdom of the Golden), Takashi Murakami, 2008

Flower Carts, Artist Unknown, Japanese, 19th century
William Sturgis Bigelow Collection. Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

The Japanese masterpieces exhibited alongside Murakami’s work include the MFA’s 13th century 23-foot scroll depicting an attack on horseback. Scrolls such as these had an impact on later Japanese artists as well as contemporary anime directors, all which influence Murakami’s work.

Night Attack on the Sanjô Palace, from the Illustrated Scrolls of the Events of the Heiji Era (Heiji monogatari emaki). Japanese, Kamakura period, second half of the 13th century
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Fenollosa‑Weld Collection. Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

I hope you have a chance to see this exhibition that combines past and present Japanese art, and includes plenty of playful moments. And because I couldn’t resist, I’ll end with a selfie. ;)

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  1. Anna Young says:

    To quote another famous artist: “Crap, crap, crap… hold the press!” So he is a clown doing this lame kitsch, laughing to the bank. And all the dumb curators have to jump on the wagon to show how “in” they are. In commercial galleries, who cares, but in MFA? What’s next, yoga in the galleries? https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hyEs0ZSsAh0