Picturing Place: Expressionism at its Finest

The idea of “place” has influenced Japanese art for centuries, as seen in Princeton University’s Japanese art exhibition titled Picturing Place. Over 40 paintings, prints, books, and photographs were organized into three rooms: imagined, famous, and sacred place. Multiple time periods, styles, types, and mediums were represented, featuring colorful, small, printed collections which intricate six panelled watercolors.

The idea of “place” has influenced Japanese art for centuries, as seen in Princeton University’s Japanese art exhibition titled Picturing Place. Over 40 paintings, prints, books, and photographs were organized into three rooms: imagined, famous, and sacred place. Multiple time periods, styles, types, and mediums were represented, featuring colorful, small, printed collections which intricate six panelled watercolors.

Strikingly different from western art, the Japanese art in the exhibition notably focused heavily on expression rather than attempting realistic depiction. The explanations written by the museum to explain these hidden meanings were excellent and certainly made the experience more meaningful, showing a complex side of Japanese art. In Hakuin Ekaku’s Mount Fuji, Hawk, and Eggplant, the seemingly simple brushwork and randomly chosen objects represent an ideal dream the first night of the new year, with Mount Fuji being a sacred site and the other words shown in the painting being homonyms for good virtues. Poems and other messages often accompanied paintings of landscapes. As explained in a caption beneath Imao Keinen’s Pines, Waves, and Mountains, the “intricately turned and crooked” branches of the pine tree made it a “symbol of perseverance,” which reflected well on the owner when it was on display in gatherings. For viewers passing by, the expressiveness of the art in addition to its beauty made it much more worthwhile to see.

Even in an exhibition focusing on place, the presence of human activity was relevant, as people indicate the significance of a place through the activities which they conduct there. Kameda Bōsai’s Mountains of the Heart, for instance, portrays a man on a flat rock, seemingly lost in thought as he is gazing at the distant mountaintops. The ability to capture the way people connect with place is a remarkable aspect of Japanese art.

I, however, felt the museum failed to fully distinguish the true uniqueness of Japanese art. A number of explanations about landscape paintings included mentions of the painting representing places in China and how many techniques were adopted from China. While much of Japanese culture did originate from China, the island developed its own unique culture different from mainland China’s, and its art certainly has its distinct properties, such as its more spontaneous feel and use of vibrant color.

The final display before the exit of the exhibition was a panel of photographs showing the disastrous consequences of the earthquake and tsunami that affected Japan in 2011. Looking at the photos, the aura of sadness and destruction left viewers with a slightly unsettling feeling. Having displayed the the captivating nature of Japanese art, the museum draws attention to a more present-day subject with which Japan still deals, reminding people of the tragedy that affected such an eyecatching place.

A beautiful art exhibit, Princeton University’s Picturing Place offers a wonderful chance to see precious artwork centered on the Japanese presentation of place.