Thanks to the Yasuko Myer Bequest, the AGNSW already owns an important series of 36 prints by Tsukioka Yoshitoshi (1839-92). These are joined by other works by this great artist, including dynamic images such as Kusunoki Tamonmaru vanquishing the old badger (1860), which uses subtle gradations of ink to embed ghostly figures into the black backdrop of the action.
Among other famous, eye-catching prints, it’s impossible to ignore Utagawa Kuniyoshi’s Mitsukumi defies the skeleton spectre conjured up by Princess Takiyasha (1845-46). It shows a gigantic skeleton looming over a samurai drawing his sword in preparation for combat.
As for Murakami’s much-hyped contribution, the new work Japan Supernatural: Vertiginous After Staring at the Empty World Too Intensely, I Found Myself Trapped in the Realm of Lurking Ghosts and Monsters (2019) – acquired by the AGNSW for an undisclosed, multi-million dollar sum – is big but not beautiful.
At 10 metres by 3 metres, it’s dwarfed by another Murakami work, In the Land of the Dead, Stepping on the Tail of a Rainbow (2014), from the Broad Art Foundation of Los Angeles, which measures 25 metres by 3 metres. If the scale of these paintings seems astonishing, one needs to remember that Murakami runs an art factory with more than 300 employees. The Murakami painting is a mash-up of images drawn from Ukiyo-e prints, produced by assistants according to the artist’s design.
It’s no special achievement to buy a large picture at the top of the market by one of the world’s most fashionable and expensive artists. This will never be a work of historical importance; it’s a crude, flashy commodity, a piece of public entertainment.
Compared to the small images of the Ukiyo-e printmakers, Murakami’s vast pictures look incredibly superficial –which is hardly surprising for the artist who coined the term “superflat”. It suggests that with Japanese art, size does matter, with bigger not necessarily being better.
Japan Supernatural: Ghosts, goblins and monsters, 1700s to now is at the Art Gallery of NSW until March 8.