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Thoughts on the ‘Geidai’ Natsume Sōseki Exhibition (夏目漱石の美術世界展)

02/09/2013

You see, loneliness is the price we have to pay for being born in this modern age, so full of freedom, independence, and our own egoistical selves.

Together with Murakami and Mishima, Soseki forms an unlikely triumvirate of Japanese authors that I can call my most favoured. Of course one can not discount the genius of Oe and madness of Akutagawa, but these three – especially Soseki – seem more human to me.

Two months ago I visited the “Natsume Soseki and the World of Art” (夏目漱石の美術世界展) exhibit at the Geidai (my old conservatoire) Bijutsukan, near Ueno Park. It was a large exhibit with over 200 pieces arranged across eight different rooms.

Natsume Soseki and the Arts

Natsume Soseki and the Arts

The first room, “Preface,” centres on Hashiguchi Goyo’s striking Art Nouveau style illustrations and cover designs for the first edition of I Am A Cat (Wagahai wa neko de aru, 1905-6). I’ve seen most of them before, but having them displayed together alongside early sketches really brings out their almost ethereal strangeness.

“Chapter One” focuses on mostly European-style paintings, including a number of works discussed in Soseki’s early fiction.

“Chapter Two” turns its gaze on East Asian pieces, including some mentioned in various novels and stories.

“Chapter Three” includes 42 works connected to the novels KusamakuraSanshiro,  And Then and The Gate, all published between 1906 and 1910. To digress, a lot of Soseki’s writing in this period reminds me of Mishima’s ‘Gogo no Eiko’ (1963). It includes, for example, Waterhouse’s oil painting ‘The Mermaid’ (1901), which Sanshiro and Minako encounter and discuss in Sanshiro. This room includes one painting especially created for the exhibit: Sato Eisuke’s reconstruction of ‘Mori no onna,’ the portrait of Minako that Sanshiro gazes at in the closing pages of the novel. The style of Sato’s rendering matches my mental image of the painting described in the novel, but it seemed much too small: reading Soseki’s description of the work, I imagine an enormous panel-sized painting, but Sato’s version is less than one meter tall, I remember.

“Chapter Four” explores Soseki’s relations with contemporary artists. The organisers assembled a large number of works that were displayed at the 1912 “Bunten” exhibit, about which Soseki serialised an extended review essay in Asahi Shinbun. They include quotations from Soseki’s evaluation next to each of the works. Perhaps it’s just me and the strong emotional bond I feel for Soseki, but there’s something about standing in front of a painting that you know he gazed at one hundred years ago and comparing your own reaction to his. Pretentious as this may sound, both Soseki and I were struck by Sano Issei’s “Yukizora,” a folding screen depicting a flock of birds scattered across the withered branches of a tree.

“Chapter Five” collects works by painters who were close to Soseki, including Asai Chu, Nakamura Fusetsu, and Hamaguchi. I was moved by Tsuda Seifu’s portrait of Natsume Aiko (1931, Soseki’s daughter), wearing a bright red dress and smiling broadly. There is also a marvellous watercolour of a chrysanthemum (my favourite flower and the national flower of Japan) in the guise of a letter that Masaoka Shiki sent to Soseki in 1900.

“Chapter Six” includes 24 of Soseki’s own paintings. He was a serious amateur painter working mainly in watercolours and ink. I was curious to see that all of the works included came from the collection of Iwanami Shoten. I can understand why the various manuscript pages included in the exhibit would be in the hands of Iwanami, Soseki’s publisher; but why do they also own many of his artworks, which were not meant for publication or public display? The exhibit concludes with a room that covers more of the elegant artwork from the early editions of Soseki’s books.

The museum is a short walk from Ueno Park, the setting for a number of scenes in Soseki’s fiction, and Geidai itself. We are in a stretch now where every year marks the centennial anniversary of important works by Soseki, and the urge to try to retrace his footsteps is only natural. See if you can resist the urge to stand alone in front of ‘Mori no onna’ and whisper silently…

“Stray sheep.”

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From → Art, Literature

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