A Tribute to Kojiro Tomita

Asian Art from the Permanent Collection. At the Art Complex Museum in Duxbury.

(originally published in The Boston Phoenix, November, 1990)

It has been said that art is a tryst;
 for in the joy of it,  maker and beholder meet.
— Kojiro Tomita

Golden birds fly above a forest of pine trees in the night sky, illuminated by a radiant full moon, on a Japanese suzuribako — ink stone box — made of black lacquer and painted with gold. Inside the box is a gold-rimmed, gourd-shaped inkstone and a pair of perfect little lacquered silver brushes, with tiny birds embossed in gold on their shiny black handles.

This exquisite little writing box was made in Japan around 1900 by Tomita Kohichi, the father of Kojiro Tomita, to whom this small but rewarding show of Asian art is dedicated.

Kojiro Tomita (1890 – 1976) was a legendary curator of Asian art at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; he was said to have a “magic eye.” He was a generous friend to the Art Complex Museum in Duxbury, and he advised and encouraged Carl and Edith Weyerhaeuser, who founded this public museum to house and exhibit their extensive collection of Asian art.

Tribute to Kojiro Tomita: Asian art from the Permanent Collection includes a lovely selection of Japanese ceramics and laquer ware, a shadow puppet from Thailand, a Chinese imperial robe of sky blue silk, embroidered all over with golden dragons and swirling clouds, a group of lively, sensual Indian dancing figures in cast copper and bronze, and some very beautiful Chinese paintings in brush and ink.

Chinese brush painting was almost a performance. The artist painted with black ink on a perfect piece of paper or silk that allowed for no mistakes — no erasing, no wiping out, none of the building-up and layering of the surface so central to Western oil painting.

Chinese painters spent years practicing with the brush. Then, when they knew they were ready, they painted swiftly, often in a single session, dipping their brushes into black ink thinned down to many various shades of grey, and sometimes just a touch of red or green, leaving blank areas of creamy white paper to represent a waterfall or clouds in the sky. Yet with these minimal means, they achieved an astonishing range of marks and tones.

Chinese painting and poetry were intimately intertwined; painting was called “poetry without words.” A 14th century handscroll here by Guo Bi showing overlapping bamboo was very much admired: 31 red collectors seals and several poems written about the painting attest to its excellence. One poem, by Tao Mengai reads:

“At the bottom of Phoenix mountain the autumn wind arrives early,
The yellow leaves descend through the air all through the forest.
Only this noble bamboo stands very pure and perfect beside the stream,
Like a piece of jade its greenness stands out in the cold stream.”

A late 19th century painting of bamboo in the rain by Luo Ching in the rain is much more impressionistic — the artist used his finger as well as the brush to blur the elegant leaves that flutter, bend, twist, and flow down one side of the page. A single jittery line of calligraphy snakes down the other side to create a perfect asymmetrical balance.

Chinese brush and ink painting was very important to American abstract artists of the 50’s and 60’s, and to the 20th century eye, Chu Ta’s Two Ducks Under Tall Lotus Leaves reads as abstract art — a vigorous dance of ink on paper. Big splashy lotus leaves are cloudy pools of grey  staining into the paper like a Helen Frankenthaler;  tall, lyrical lotus stems stretch and curve like an Ellsworth Kelly; overlapping bamboo leaves are as bold and gestural as a Franz Kline; and the painting  communicates as powerful a sense of the physical presence of the artist as a Jackson Pollock.

You can recognize the lotus and the ducks, but you respond to the movement of the artist’s hand — the lyrical push and drip and flow and stain of ink on paper. Every single touch of Chu Ta’s brush means something. Every mark still matters.

Chu Ta (1626-1705) belonged to the Ming imperial family; he became a Buddhist monk in 1644. He was eccentric and solitary. It is said that he never spoke — but he laughed, cried, waved his hands, and drank rice wine most expressively while he painted. Hundreds of years later, you can still almost feel the movement of his hand — the bold drunken touch of his brush.

by Rebecca Nemser for rebeccanemser.com

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