Takashi Murakami upholds a strong commitment to redefine and promote contemporary Japanese that were distinctly Japanese, creating an entirely new genre and changing the perception of what art means on a global scale.
Murakami is captivated with the Japonisme movement of the late 1800s, in which Western artists including Vincent Van Gogh (Fig. 1), Gustav Klimt (Fig. 2) and Edouard Manet, were inspired by the works of their Japanese counterparts. For centuries, the uses of one and two-point perspective in Western arts meant to scientifically mimic the way in which the human eye registers depth in the ideals of three-dimensionality. Two-dimensionality, by contrast, has been essential to Japanese art for time immemorial. The bold designs, intense colours, elegant and simple lines, and flat areas of pure colour of superflat technique have inspired many of the innovations of Western Modernism.
SKULLS AND FLOWERS – A REINVIGORATION OF JAPAN’S ARTISTIC LEGACY
In Skulls & Flowers Red (Lot 53), Murakami focuses on two of his most iconic motifs, the smiling flowers and the skulls which first appeared in the ’90s. He paints the overlapping arrangement of numerous anime-inspired skulls, wavering against an all-over field of smiling faces crowned with a corona of floral petals, subjugated by a coalescing red and pink. Variable constellations are spawned by several dialectically interconnected pairs: abstraction and embodiment, figure and pattern, rhythm and substance, form and matter, stylisation and naturalism. Forsaking a single fixed focal point, it is rendered compositionally ahierarchical. An endless expansion of visual field seems to linger on the threshold of our perception, with a strong sense of rhythm, pattern upon pattern, and refined elegance.
Skulls & Flowers Red represents a self-conscious reinvigoration of Japan’s pre-modern artistic legacy, evoking the Edo period of indigenous Japanese artistic interests. The emphatic use of firmly sketched silhouettes, essential forms, bold and uniform colours, and an adventurous take on both composition and perspective, with highly decorative and patterned manner alludes to the Rinpa style paintings from the early seventeenth century (Fig. 3). Rinpa refers to a distinctive style of Japanese paintings, textiles, ceramics, and lacquerwares, marked by a bold, graphic ellipsis of natural motifs, the lavish use of expensive mineral and metallic pigments, innovative experimentation with new brush techniques, all with references to traditional court literature and poetry.
SEASONAL IMAGERY IN JAPANESE ART
From ancient times, Japanese have celebrated the beauty of the seasons and the poignancy of their inevitable evanescence through many festivals and rituals. The flower has been an important marker in Japanese culture and a popular motif in classical paintings. Redolent of literati painting, where the monotonous images of flowers, old trees and rocks created by these scholar-artists became emblems of their character and spirit, Skulls & Flowers Red conveys the shared cultural ideals of a reclusive world through a symbolic shorthand. Going beyond representation, Murakami embraces a highly sophisticated aesthetic sensibility of the natural world, while permeating his paintings with personal emotions. Murakami remarks, “Each one seemed to have its own feelings, its own personality...I find them just as pretty, just as disturbing. At the same time there is this strength in them; it is the same image of strength I find when drawing the human face.”
The flowers here resemble Chrysanthemum. Japanese believe that the chrysanthemum is a symbol of the sun, and the way in which the flower opens its petals denotes perfection. It has long been featured in ancient paintings and poems used to depict loftiness, virtue, modesty and purity by literati. At the same time, flowers and skulls, herein, induces melancholy sentiments with a sense of time passing, loss, and disappointment, while depicting loftiness, virtue, modesty and purity by literati. It creates meditations on the ephemeral seasons of life and expresses essential truths about the nature of human experience.
THE BEAUTY OF EVANESCENCE
Skulls & Flowers Red is reminiscent of Ito Jakuchu’s Painting of Skull (Fig. 4). Not only does it signify memento mori (emblems of mortality), images of the transience of human life, but also when animated to symbolise ghosts and apparitions. They seem present yet absent, in the landscape yet already part of a void to which everything will eventually return. Murakami is keenly aware of mortality, he describes his Skulls paintings as “the awakening of objects secreted from my brain” in convergence with the historical backdrop of ippin gafu (untrammeled painting) from late Tang and early Yuan dynasties. Abandoning strict outlines, ippin gafu uses unorthodox techniques, the non-linear, translucent brushwork to depict the pinnacle of natural perfection, evoking the exquisite domains, which, reveals the artist’s sincerity.
“I think still-life paintings symbolise the spirit of those who do not desire change. My Flowers & Skulls works are, in that sense, the polar opposite of still-life paintings. I desire change, especially the tendency toward decay”. Skulls & Flowers Red is a metaphysically pointed arrangement. Nothing is fixed; all is in flux in nature as in consciousness.
The present work pays homage to Yves Klein's own sacred trilogy of colours. Like Murakami, Klein's mystic beliefs partly came from his awareness of Eastern philosophy. Klein believed man had an innate sensibility that could be stimulated by colour. For Klein, the mystic of red held a special significance symbolising Divine Blood. Murakami has created his own colours in Skulls & Flowers Red. Red has multiple symbolisations: power, celebration, birth and death. In Japan, the colour red is associated closely with a few deities in Shinto and Buddhist traditions (Fig. 5). According to Japanese folklore, red is the colour for "expelling demons and illness”. In Esoteric Buddhism, red colour represents Karin (Fire ring), one of the five elements in Gorintou that symbolises Dainichi, 'essence of the infinite levels of the unconscious mind'. Each part of the Gorintou represents an element of change in both Jutsuzaikai (the real world) and Henkai (the world of impermanence). The Karin is a point of transition between two worlds and as such represents both unification and movement. The colour red here is a brilliant reminder of life, and death. Skulls & Flowers Red is reminiscent of expressions of Klein’s concept of a "zone of immateriality" - a mystic void that he believed existed beyond the confines of conventional notions of time and space.
Japan is an ethnically homogeneous nation that hold after death beliefs in Buddhism and Shintoism. They teach that every human has an eternal soul or spirit. For Murakami, the realm of the "immaterial" not only lay outside of man's conventional wisdom but was to be the arena of his future. Like his flowers, cherry blossoms had long symbolised the beauty of evanescence; and Japan’s warrior ethos had always glorified self-sacrifice; men dying for their celestial homeland became, in effect, cherry blossoms who acquired transcendent beauty, as displayed by Japanese author Yukio Mishima.
“After the disasters in 2011, I experienced an incredible sense of helplessness. I had no idea what I could do as an artist, and felt that the theories I had been building so far didn’t fit with the post-disaster reality.” In these ethereal narratives of destruction and death, and in the face of Japan’s recent catastrophic experience of the 3.11 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, Murakami’s own understanding of the liminality of death reaches a new magnitude in the proliferation of skulls and flowers. It is an embodiment of multivalent sentiments, hope, beauty, happiness, harmony, fragility, degeneration and temporality.
The burning force behind Murakami’s work is to keep searching for the sacred and to extract the essence of life and death lurking within the world of manga and anime, eventually, to become a living example of the potential of art.