Saturday, October 31, 2015

Big Influence; Big Exhibit

Where: Sackler Gallery

When: through January 31, 2016

Tawaraya Sotatsu, who worked in the early 1600s, was a major influence on many well-known Japanese artists, but this is his first major retrospective in the Western Hemisphere.  Little is known about his personal life, and many of his works were erroneously credited to others.

Charles Lang Freer took an interest in his work in the early 1900s and purchased two Sotatsu masterpieces: "Dragons and Clouds" and "Waves at Matsushima" (pictured here).  Happily, both are on display, and they are truly amazing.  They are quite large; you really need to step back and view them at a distance to take them in.  "Waves" is not only a depiction of the sea, but also colorful trees and rocks.  "Dragons," although less colorful, is no less powerful; you feel as if the beasts are going to come right out of the screens.

Perhaps my favorite piece is one entitled "A Child Holding a Spotted Puppy"; it's very endearing.   The expressions on both the child's and the puppy's faces are lovely.  It makes you realize that no matter how much the world has changed in the last 400 years (and it's changed a lot), there will always be kids and dogs.

A video guide placed near the entrance of the show alerts you to the techniques on display in Sotatsu's art.  I don't know why they've set this up, but I like it very much, both because it's informative and because it's so well done.  I wish they would do this for more shows going forward.  It's not that the work is that inaccessible to Western viewers, but for those of us without Freer's discerning eye, it's helpful!

Another aspect of this show that's new to me is the opportunity for audience participation.  About mid-way through the show (which is HUGE), visitors can pick up fan-shaped pieces of paper and use colored pencils to draw their own designs.  Once finished, you can share your fan decoration on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram.   It's a contest (involving likes on Facebook); the prize is a basket of Sotatsu-related items.  It occurred to me that my niece might enjoy this type of thing; I'll have to see if she might like to go over winter break...

I also want to give them kudos for providing directions through the show right at the entrance, so you know where to start and how to proceed to see everything.  In addition, they direct you to a related show in the Freer.  This is exactly the kind of signage I'd like to see throughout the Smithsonian: easy to understand and very informative.

In addition to original works, there is also a section of digital images.  Many Asian art works are either so old or so fragile that they are not able to be displayed.  Digital photography allows visitors to see these works in tremendous detail, without damaging the originals.  The Sackler and Freer are experimenting with this technology, so I'm hoping that more Sotatsu pieces will be on display digitally in the years to come.

The final part of the exhibit is entitled "Rediscovery" and contains pieces done by later artists influenced by Sotatsu and/or in homage to his work.  There are some terrific things in this set of galleries as well.

Verdict: This is a whale of an exhibit.  If you recall the show they had on yoga a while back, it's set up (I think) in the same spaces and is about as large.  Not really a lunchtime outing, unless you rush through, and what's the sense in that?  Worth savoring.

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