Fine Arts & Exhibits: Takashi Murakami Teams With a Professor to Explore the Historical

“I was so annoyed by his challenge,” said Mr. Murakami, who had first seen the Shohaku image reproduced in Professor Tsuji’s 1970 book “Lineage of Eccentrics” tracing the wild originality of six artists from the Edo period (1615-1868), a volume that Mr. Murakami had found inspirational as a young artist.

“I decided to place a bind on myself and just do the whole thing in one go within 24 hours,” Mr. Murakami said, “eliminating the process of meticulously designing and going straight to the canvas as if I were drunk.”


Takashi Murakami, “Dragon in Clouds — Red Mutation.” Credit All Rights Reserved, Takashi Murakami/Kaikai Kiki Co., Ltd.

Mr. Murakami’s “Dragon in Clouds — Red Mutation” mimics the sweet google-eyed personality and physical dynamism of Shohaku’s dragon and his splashing of pigment against the surface of the paper, so different from Mr. Murakami’s sleek trademark hard-edge forms.

“Takashi has interpreted this in a very expressionistic way that I find tremendously exciting,” said Ms. Morse, who collaborated with Professor Tsuji for over a decade in cataloging the museum’s thousands of objects of Japanese art, including the Shohaku collection. “Takashi sees himself as a spiritual heir following on Shohaku,” she added.

While Mr. Murakami finds his dragon embarrassing technically, he said, “it led me to approach my own limit and begin making this series of massively scaled paintings that without my communication with Professor Tsuji would not have happened.”


Shaka, the Historical Buddha, Japanese, late Heian period, late 10th to early 11th century. Credit Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

He is less disparaging of his 82-foot-long 2014 painting “In the Land of the Dead, Stepping on the Tail of a Rainbow,” a hallucinogenic landscape of figures and black skulls swept up in a tsunami of roiling water that is on view at the Broad museum in Los Angeles. Many studies for the painting are shown in Boston.

“That painting I feel is one answer I can give to Professor Tsuji,” said Mr. Murakami, to show him “that I humbly received the ‘Lineage of Eccentrics,’ digested it myself and added something that is completely different from what I received.”

Mr. Tsuji called it a great honor to be a part of this creativity as an art historian. Through the magazine project “which was filled with drama, unpredictability and nonsense,” he said, “I realized Murakami’s genius, rare in an artist, in which he is able to assimilate wide knowledge from others and incorporate it into his works.”


Takashi Murakami, “Oval Buddha Silver” Credit All Rights Reserved, Takashi Murakami/Kaikai Kiki Co., Ltd.

Mr. Murakami’s deep dive into his own Japanese heritage was a way of addressing a kind of identity crisis, said Michael Darling, who organized the artist’s recent retrospective “The Octopus Eats Its Own Leg” at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago. “He had reached this apex in his career around 2007, but I think it worried him and made him question why he was making art,” said Mr. Darling, whose exhibition traced the artist’s arc from smooth plasticized figures to mythical beasts and monks rendered craggy and gnarled and at gigantic scale. It was the most highly attended show in the Chicago museum’s history and opens at the Vancouver Art Gallery next year.

“Without saying that Murakami wasn’t interesting before, which I don’t believe,” Mr. Darling added, “I do think that his relationship with Professor Tsuji has had a real noticeable impact on his career and his development.”

The show at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston highlights works directly and generally inspirational to Mr. Murakami. He made an almost one-to-one copy of the conical lotus-shape base supporting a late-10th, early-11th century Buddha in the museum’s collection and used it to prop up his own Buddha interpreted as an animation character in his sculpture “Oval Buddha Silver” (2008). Mr. Murakami’s golden multipanel “Kawaii – vacances (Summer Vacation in the Kingdom of the Golden)” (2008), populated with a field of smiling flower faces, echoes the dazzling ornamentation of poppies on a gold ground in a 17th-century screen by the school of Tawaraya Sotatsu.

In a large-scale work commissioned especially for this show, Mr. Murakami aims to please his teacher. It incorporates the eccentric depiction of natural phenomena, including a direct reference to Shohaku’s screen “Transcendent Attacking a Whirlwind” (circa 1764) where a tornado resembles a serpent’s coiled tail. Speaking while the piece was still in progress, Mr. Murakami confessed that it has been very difficult and he had not yet succeeded.

“I want to show Professor Tsuji that I have been studying all he have given me,” he said. “I’m hoping this work to be that.”

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