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Art: Great-Outlook Master

5 minute read

Outside the traditional Japanese house facing famed Ueno Park roars the frantic traffic of Tokyo 1955. But behind the high wall with its iron-studded cypress-wood gates is the peaceful stillness of classical Japan. There, in a severely unadorned room opening on a small garden of wild grasses, stunted pines and an artificial brook, sits the black kimonoed figure of Taikwan Yokoyama, Japan’s greatest living traditional artist. A fiercely independent man of monumental rages, Yokoyama today firmly treads the paths laid out by Japan’s past masters, paints in styles that recall the Ukiyo-e of Hokusai and Hiroshige, the decorative brilliance of the Kano school, and the Chinese Zen Buddhists before them.

Surrounded by the tools of his art: framed square of silk, feather duster, long brushes, inkstones and cakes of Chinese ink, Yokoyama works from memory on paintings that bring from $750 to $3,000 each. When the work goes badly, he jabs at the silk with angry brush strokes, then roars to his silk framer, crouched in the adjoining room, to bring a fresh frame. A perfectionist, Yokoyama says: “Each work I start, I tell myself that this is going to be my masterpiece.” Only when he is satisfied does he press his name seal,

Taikwan, on the silk, dust the red sealing ink with powdered coral, then ring the bell for his woman servant to bring him a warm cup of sake.

Beneath the Swords. This week Tokyo’s largest department store, the Mitsukoshi. hung a selection of Yokoyama’s best paintings (out of an estimated production of 10,000) for an exhibition celebrating the old man’s 87th birthday. Yokoyama acknowledged the flurry by commenting: “Doctors say I have an eye in half a million.” Japan’s leading newspaper, Asahi, evaluating a lifetime devoted to making high standards higher, wrote: “Yokoyama is like a mountain among low hills.”

Yokoyama began his volcanic life in turbulence. He was born in a bamboo grove, where his mother had crept to escape the swinging swordsmen of feuding samurai factions at the dawn of the Meiji Era. Sent to a Tokyo art school, Yokoyama soon proved his talents for 1) outstanding brushwork and 2) consuming sake. Advised by a professor to drink either one sho (3.8 pints) of sake a day or nothing, Yokoyama took to the bottle in earnest. Today he begins his day by downing a prebreakfast glass full of his favorite sake brand, “Inebriate Soul”, during the rest of the day manages to down two full quarts. Vainly his wife tries to force more food on him; the only visible result is that Yokoyama’s dog grows fatter. Last April when Yokoyama scalded his feet in a piping-hot Japanese bath, his first question to the doctor was: “It’s all right to keep drinking, isn’t it?”

To his Homeric capacity as a sake drinker, Yokoyama attributes not only the inspiration for his painter’s name, Taikwan, or Great Outlook, but many of his painting inspirations as well. But he rigidly follows two rules: drink with friends only and never drink while painting.

Back to Bamboo. Yokoyama won his first real financial success outside Japan. Starting out on a tour of the Western world in 1904, he and two friends landed in New York dressed in kimonos, haoris and hakamas. For two months they holed up in a hotel, turning out Japanese “ultra impressionist” paintings that so delighted Painter John La Farge that he enthusiastically arranged a show. Accustomed to charging ten dollars a painting, the artists from Japan were told that American watercolors sometimes brought thousands of dollars. They proudly charged accordingly. To their surprise they sold out, went to London and repeated the process.

But back in Tokyo, Yokoyama found that his watercolors no longer pleased. He retired to a coastal village, lived by trading paintings for rice and worked on style. The result was a return to the bedrock of Japanese painting: quick, expressive lines to portray the great traditional subjects —bamboos swaying in the breeze, waterfalls and mountains rising from mist.

Rock & Roll. Yokoyama’s disciplined style produced his most ambitious work, The Wheel of Life, a null scroll done in sumi (black ink) wash, which shows a classic progression of water forms, from mountain mist to the sea and back again to a sky ruled by the dragon—rain deity and symbol of longevity. Yokoyama put the scroll on display just three hours before the 1923 Tokyo earthquake. When the buildings began to rock, he rolled it up and dashed outside to safety.

Yokoyama’s rugged, orthodox integrity (he refuses to wear Western clothes, claims never to have sat in a chair) has endeared him to a Japan faintly nostalgic for the old days. He holds the title of “artist to the Imperial Household” and owns Japan’s Culture Medal. Nonetheless, the traditionalism that Yokoyama stands for is fast losing to Western modernism. Well aware of this, Yokoyama merely shrugs and says: “In the West most artists paint with the eye; in the East with the Kokoro [soul]. To me the problem seems to be whether the human being is to be ruled by nature or nature is to be ruled by the human being.” Then, taking another sip of sake, he beams: “I doubt whether a Seiyojin [Westerner] will be able to understand my thoughts.”

Yokoyama, in Japanese, literally means “near the mountain.”

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