Tigers and Cockerels and Lobsters

I’m a big fan of Japanese arts, and I hadn’t been to the British Museum in a few months. I was disappointed that the regular Japanese room was closed, but there was something in one of the print rooms (4th floor at the back). And it’s not just prints.

It’s a museum, not an art gallery, but the Japanese don’t make the same art/craft/design/utilitarian distinctions we do anyway. There are containers and ceramics and armour and weapons and paintings and fans and lots more. The blade of a sword could be a major work of art in Japan. A lot of what’s here is second division in art and historical terms, and its span is huge and its focus non-existent.

But there are highlights. Some lovely willow-pattern-blue and white ceramics, especially a dynamic plate with lobsters painted on. The samurai armour with its whiskered facemask, and a bow that must be more than 7′ long, are the most spectacular exhibits. There are some gorgeous 19th Century folding fans, especially two with magnificent paintings of bamboo leaves (one of my favourite classical subjects) by Tani Buncho, and one with some beautiful calligraphy in the cursive style by Ota Nampo. There’s a terrific 16th Century Zen landscape painting, jagged and energetic (actually this is minor really, but I love this school and style above almost any other in the world ever). There’s a woodcut print and an early cartoon for same by Tsukioka Yoshitoshi, both of some impressive hero amongst flames with some breathtakingly vigorous drapery.

Best of all are two major works by genuine giants. A cute but potent tiger in an extraordinarily narrow scroll format (about 6″ wide, 4′ high) by Maruyama Okyo from 1775, when he was probably Japan’s most revered painter, and an astounding cockerel and chick fan painting by the unpredictable Hokusai. We rarely see his painting – his prints and books of drawings are vastly more numerous and famous – but this is wonderful, almost expressionist in its washes of colour, and surprisingly painterly. It looks more than a century newer than it is, but that is almost commonplace in Hokusai’s work.

Don’t ask me when it closes. The attendant says it’s permanent, the new space for Japanese exhibits, a poster says it ends August 17th. Maybe something different will be there next week – I will check.