Current exhibitions challenge Western perceptions of art

'Soshu Shichiri-ga-hama' by Katsushika Hokusai.
'Soshu Shichiri-ga-hama' by Katsushika Hokusai.
This week James Dignan takes a trip between cultures, looking at Japanese woodblock prints, tibetan carpets and the Pacific as percieved through the colonial lens.

Say the word "art", and the images most likely to come to mind are of painting and sculpture, often specifically those types of painting and sculpture embedded in the Western tradition of art history, from medieval icons to modern abstraction and beyond.

Yet a trio of exhibitions currently showing in Dunedin give some indication of the boundless nature of artistic and creative endeavours.

Of the three exhibitions, the one which ties in most readily with stereotypical images of art is Hail falls noisily on bamboo leaves, a fine exhibition of Japanese woodblock prints currently showing at the Dunedin Public Art Gallery.

The title of the exhibition, from the writings of 11th-century noblewoman Izumi Shikibu, captures the essence of many of these traditional Japanese scenes in which weather, landscape, and fashion play integral parts.

The exhibition concentrates on coloured woodblock prints of the later Edo period of the 19th century, notably the works of prominent landscape artist Ando Hiroshige.

Hiroshige's works use fine line blocked in by delicately shaded colour in such a way that it is easy to forget that these are woodblocks and not watercolour paintings.

The driving washes of rain and rhythmic misty treetops of Shono Haku-U and calm simplicity of Wakan Royei Shu give indications of the stylisations which were to make Japanese art influential in the West in the late 19th century and beyond.

Several other artists are represented by smaller numbers of works, among them two masterful moody landscapes by perhaps Japan's most famous artist, Katsushika Hokusai.

Three pieces by Utagawa Kunisada are memorable for the artist's focus on the intricate repetitive designs of Japanese traditional clothing.

Even where landscape is invoked in these pieces, it is similar rhythmical motifs which predominate.

• A different form of printing is on view in Charting the peaceful seas: Maps of the Pacific, 1642-1846, a display of old cartography at the Dunedin Public Library.

Though primarily designed for the purposes of science rather than art, these old maps were still made as fine pieces of craftsmanship in their own right, and the skills employed in their creation are evident in this exhibition.

The maps displayed date from the 17th to 19th centuries, though the era of Captain Cook's voyages dominates the display.

All are plates from contemporaneous books, some of them single pages, and otherslarger folded charts.

The maps are informative, showing the increases not only in European knowledge of the geography of the Pacific, but also in the changing styles of maps and advances in printing technology available.

This is particularly shown when two maps of disparate ages are displayed alongside each other, as is the case with the John Harris chart from 1744 and that of G.

Antonelli some hundred years later.

Unknown regions become mapped and mysterious phantom islands disappear from the charts, and the style and skills of the mapmakers and printers changes markedly with the times.

The one non-cartographic work on display is a skilful, fabulously stylised frontispiece by Ramberg, Neagle, and Grainger, marking the death of Captain Cook.

Its classical imagery bears strong comparison to the academic historical and allegorical art of the era, and artists such as Copley and Reynolds.

Whether this exhibition is viewed from the point of view of history, geography, or art, the display is a fascinating glimpse at the skills of these cartographers.

• The Himalayan region of Tibet has been in the news of late, and it is from here and the neighbouring lands of Nepal and north India that the works that comprise Tales from Tibet: The enchanting story of Tibetan carpets at the Art Society's gallery come.

The 60-odd hand-made rugs and carpets are admirable in their intended usage, but are also fine artworks in their own right, each one a woollen masterpiece abounding in the symbols of these ancient Himalayan cultures.

The carpets are created from local wools, in some cases blended with fibres imported from New Zealand, and are all made using traditional methods.

The pieces are hand-knotted using vertical hand looms, before being trimmed with scissors to create the strong relief displayed in many of the works.

Traditional symbols abound, most notably in the many pieces using mandalas, medallions, or dorje (symbols of wisdom created from stylised thunderbolts).

Auspicious beasts are also strongly represented, with several rugs showing Tibetan snow lions and dragons, the latter each clutching its pearl of power and flying over the stylised mountaintops.

Traditional Buddhist symbols such as the eight auspicious signs and lotus flower are also depicted.

The works are richly toned by natural vegetable dyes and are attractive pieces, either in their intended locations on floors or as wall-hangings.


Add a Comment