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study for a running dog

Study for a Running Dog - Francis Bacon

The Francis Bacon exhibiton at the Museum of Modern Art Tokyo (which ends today) is particularly strong on his early work, or perhaps better: shows how Bacon's early work was particularly strong. Like this one, 'Study for a Running Dog' from 1954, a concentrated, nightmarish image of menace.

The influence on Bacon of Eadweard Muybridge's time-lapse photography of animal and human movement shows in works like this one and his earlier 'Study of a Dog' (1952). Both works suggest movement through a blurring effect of paint, in this case feverishly forward, straight as on a track - the gutter as a giant treadmill.

This Japan Times article describes the effect as "like a camera with its shutter open too long, suggestive of man in time and motion." It quotes Bacon on his intentions:

I would like my pictures to look as if a human being had passed between them, like a snail, leaving a trail of the human presence and memory trace of past events, as the snail leaves its slime.

'Study for a Running Dog' is a sped-up, animal version of this, leaving the faint trace of a bad dream.

Two interesting documentaries on Bacon: The South Bank Show (1985) and 'Francis Bacon's Arena' (2005), which was scored by Brian Eno.

dejima stories

The tiny fan-shaped island of Dejima in the harbor of Nagasaki played a fascinating role in the history of Japan and the Netherlands. As the most far-flung trading post of the VOC, the Dutch East India Company, it served for more than two centuries as Japan's only window to the West.

Two recent books bring to life the history of Dejima – David Mitchell's historical novel 'The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet' and the study 'Titia, the First Western Woman in Japan' by René Bersma. More on these below.

Dejima ('exit island') had been built in 1636 to quarantine the Portuguese, whose proselytizing angered the shogun, and when they were banished in 1639 the artificial island became a fitting home for the Dutch 'factory'. Another small, square-shaped island served as the Chinese trading post. These two concessions became Japan's only points of contact with the outside world during its long period of sakoku ('closed country').

Dejima, Nagasaki - 1

While mainly a lucrative, if rather stringent business for the VOC, whose interest was in Japan's copper and silver, Dejima also created a trickle of cultural exchange revolving around its interpretors and translators. They served as the interface for what came to be known as rangaku ('Dutch learning', i.e. European studies), the rapidly expanding body of scientific knowledge coming from Europe at the time. Books and ideas introduced in Japan through Dejima included Copernicus, Newton, Adam Smith, and perhaps most importantly, modern anatomy and medicine.

But knowledge flowed the other way, too. European scholars, passing off as Dutch, lived on Dejima in order to study Japan's language, culture and nature. The annual court journey to Edo that the Dejima delegation was required to make – a three-month return journey over land and via the Seto Inland Sea – provided them with unique insights in an otherwise splendidly isolated culture.

Dejima, Nagasaki - 2

These days Dejima is not an island anymore, due to land reclamation projects in the harbor, but the area has been reconstructed, including the intriguingly hybrid Dutch-Japanese houses, and now serves as a museum. The Nagasaki Museum of History & Culture, in the reconstructed magistrate's office, also has a great collection on the theme of the “history of overseas exchanges”, as they call it.

(One curious type of artifact on display in the museum are the socalled fumi-e, or 'trample tablets', which bear faded images of Jesus or Mary. In an annual ritual, the Japanese population was required to tread on such a tablet to prove they weren't Christians.)

jacob de zoet

David Mitchell, of 'Cloud Atlas' fame, set his first historical novel on Dejima. 'The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet' (2008), whose title refers to a poetic name for Japan, follows a Dutch VOC clerk as he arrives in the trading post, falls impossibly in love with a Japanese midwife and ends up marooned on the island for years.

In 'Thousand Autumns' Mitchell skillfully weaves together a fictional story and historical events, and his detailed account of daily life on the island is impressive, even if his style gets rather awkward at times. But the historical events often seem more interesting than the story he creates around them. Without going into too much detail, the middle part of the book veers strangely off course with a supernatural adventure in a mountain monastery, including a ninja rescue attempt.

So back to the historical context. The year is 1799, when the VOC had just gone bankrupt and the map of Europe is about to be drastically redrawn. In 1810 Napoleon annexed the Netherlands, and a year later the British took over Dutch Batavia (modern-day Jakarta), creating the interesting situation that the Dejima trading post, where this news had not reached, became the country's last flag flying.


Into this sailed a British ship, the Phaeton (called the Phoebus in the book), in an attempt to wrest the trading monopoly from the Dutch. What followed was a high-stake triangular game of bluff: the Dutch refused to believe the news that their country no longer existed, while the British attempted to remove the Dutch by force without upsetting their hosts, the Japanese. Meanwhile the Nagasaki magistrate discovered the Japanese defences had been severely neglected under his watch, and committed seppuku ('stomach cutting', i.e. suicide).

The Dutch director, Hendrik Doeff, on whom the fictional character of Jacob de Zoet is loosely based, managed to defuse the situation, and the British ship finally retreated. Doeff would continue to repel the British until 1815, when the Netherlands were restored and he was able to return home.

In a kind of postmodern pressure cooker, Mitchell condenses these events significantly while keeping the diplomatic constellation intact. It makes the Phaeton incident, which he portrays from both the English and Dutch perspective, including a long-distance show-down between the ship's captain and De Zoet, the most rivetting part of 'Thousand Autumns'.

For more on Mitchell's strategies, read his essay 'On Historical Fiction'.

titia bergsma

As dramatically interesting as the events Mitchell portrays is the story of Titia Bergsma, the wife of Dejima director Jan Cock Blomhoff (who replaced Doeff in 1817). Her name would not have made it into the history books had Blomhoff not decided to bring her to Dejima, in violation of the Japanese rule that no women were allowed on the island (except courtesans).

This meant the Frysian Titia became the first Western woman to travel to Japan, where she, her young son and maid made a big impression on the local population, and her portrait was painted by many Japanese artists. In fact, her likeness became the template for representations of the white-skinned, fair-haired European woman during the remainder of Japan's seclusion.

But it also meant that despite Blomhoff's pleas, the Japanese authorities deported Titia when the ship she arrived on left. Her stay on Dejima lasted only three and a half months. Tragically, she never saw her husband again and died in Holland a few years later.

Group portrait - Ishizaki Yushi (1817) - Titia center

Titia's descendant René Bersma (the g got dropped somewhere along the way) pieced together her story from Dutch and Japanese sources and wrote the book 'Titia, the First Western Woman in Japan' (2002), “a tribute to a woman who achieved an accidental place in history”.

Bersma is quick to nuance his book's title somewhat:

While other European women, both Portuguese and Dutch, may have set foot in Japan in the 16th and 17th centuries, Titia was the first to have accompanied her husband on an official mission to Japan.

As a detailed personal history, 'Titia' lends vivid color to daily life on Dejima and the VOC ships, while as a document of a minor diplomatic incident it illustrates the precarious relationship between the Dutch merchants and the Japanese authorities at the time.

Most interesting, of course, is the influence Titia's short stay on Dejima had on local artists like Kawahara Keiga and Ishizaki Yushi, who both painted her numerous times.

There are over 500 different etchings, drawings, paintings, woodblock prints and effigies by a number of artists bearing her likeness. Considering that she was neither famous nor particularly glamorous, the amount of artistic activity she generated during her short stay in Japan makes her more than a mere historic curiosity.

More about Titia and the legacy of her image in this documentary (in Dutch).

inasayama view

Inasayama view over Nagasaki - 1

Inasayama view over Nagasaki - 2

Inasayama view over Nagasaki - 3

Inasayama view over Nagasaki - 4

A brief April thunderstorm over Nagasaki, seen from the top of Inasayama. The view is officially best at night.

setouchi art triennale 2013

After its inaugural edition in 2010, the second Setouchi Art Triennale continues to build on its unique formula: a breathtaking location in the Seto Inland Sea of Japan and a festival that emphasizes its roots in the local island communities while offering works by a diverse roster of Japanese and international artists.

Enlarging its scale, Art Setouchi 2013 spreads across three seasonal sessions - spring, summer and autumn - and adds a number of new locations on islands further west. Most of these will open in summer or autumn.

Setouchi Art Triennale 2013 - 1

A sizable number of the artworks from 2010 have been given a permanent place on the islands, which for returning visitors means that not all islands have as many new artworks on offer. However, these permanent works include some favorites that are well worth revisiting, like 'Sea Vine'.

Naoshima in particular, the island where the revitalization efforts of the region started, seems to be reaching a saturation point. But the Chichu Art Museum and the Art House Project, notably 'Backside of the Moon' and 'Sea of Time', are still touchstones for the quality of the festival works, as well as a model for blending art, architecture and landscape.

Setouchi Art Triennale 2013 - 2

On the other islands, the variety of genres, styles and cultural backgrounds continues to create inspiring encounters, even if the palette of themes - the sea, the islands, the village houses, the local stories - can start to feel limiting at times. This poses an interesting challenge for future development of the festival: how to keep a strong link with the region's tradition without hindering more radical ideas for the future? The islands' dwindling population makes this question all the more urgent. As this article wonders: "can art really save these islands?"

Well, it may yet... Here are a few of this year's highlights, from the islands of Shodoshima, Megijima and Ogijima.

Setouchi Art Triennale 2013 - The Light of Shodoshima - Wang Wen Chih - 1

Setouchi Art Triennale 2013 - The Light of Shodoshima - Wang Wen Chih - 2

Setouchi Art Triennale 2013 - The Light of Shodoshima - Wang Wen Chih - 3

With 'The Light of Shodoshima' Wang Wen Chih built a large bamboo pavilion that makes both a very pleasant sun-dappled space inside and a spectacular structure in the valley.

Setouchi Art Triennale 2013 - Shodoshima Soy Sauce Wall - 1

Setouchi Art Triennale 2013 - Shodoshima Soy Sauce Wall - 2

Setouchi Art Triennale 2013 - Shodoshima Soy Sauce Wall - 3

The Shodoshima community art project visualized the island's trademark product, soy sauce, in a multicolored wall made up of tiny bottles - with impressive effect.

The paintings by Akira Kamo, especially his abstractions of snow-covered mountain slopes, also need to be mentioned. Unfortunately very little of his work appears online.

Setouchi Art Triennale 2013 - Snail Time - Philipp Artus - 1

Setouchi Art Triennale 2013 - Snail Time - Philipp Artus - 2

While not made for the festival, Philipp Artus' audiovisual installation 'Snail Trail' has a fitting exhibition location in the caves on Megijima, with the audio reverberating spookily through the underground spaces.

Setouchi Art Triennale 2013 - Houses for Light - Arthur Huang - 1

Setouchi Art Triennale 2013 - Houses for Light - Arthur Huang - 2

On Ogijima, Arthur Huang's 'Houses for Light' involve a number of miniature lighthouse villages, each with its own sea view and corresponding change of perspective. (The artist also kept an extensive making-of blog.)

Setouchi Art Triennale 2013 - Walking Ark - Keisuke Yamaguchi

On the other side of the island, Keisuke Yamaguchi's humorous 'Walking Ark' adds a new landmark to the island's growing collection of open air sculpture.

Another work on Ogijima that proved hard to capture on camera is 'Water Mirror' by Sayaka Ishizuka, which delicately evokes a surface of water with collections of objects floating in it.

Needless to say, there's plenty more to explore at Setouchi, on other islands and in other seasons...

timeless tranquility

Chinese artist Li Xin's large landscape paintings explore that strange borderland where representation becomes abstraction and the depth of a mountain vista can turn into a two-dimensional patchwork of textures and colors. Viewed on the other side of the border, his landscapes seem to acquire a timeless quality, a stillness that produces an effect of estrangement.

In his current solo exhibition, titled 'Timeless Tranquility', Li Xin's work is described in relation to classical Chinese landscape painting:

The forcefulness of Li Xin's work reminds people of the Five Dynasties & Two Songs landscape style embodied in Fan Kuan's masterpiece titled Travelling Through Xishan: a remote, desolate, tranquil and mysterious land like the stillness at the dawn of time.
Li Xin - Abstraction of Green Landscape

Li Xin - Meditations at Dusk

'Abstraction of Green Landscape' and 'Meditations at Dusk' (both 2012) are examples of his work where frontal views of trees, fields, lakes and mountains create semi-abstract compositions of lines, textures and rhythms of dark and light. Both works use subtle symmetry - a strategy he has also used more overtly - and a flattening effect as if seen through a long lens to achieve their mysterious atmosphere.

Li Xin - Right Bank

The boldly framed 'Right Bank' (2011) depicts a more human-designed landscape but treats the road as just another design element, not privileged over its weedy verge, and instead focuses on the composition as an interplay of vertical and horizontal lines.

Viewing these paintings in the context of 'Travelling Through Xishan' (also known as 'Travellers among Mountains and Streams') highlights both their modernity and the Taoist tradition in which they are rooted. As in Fan Kuan's painting, the human elements in these landscapes, if present at all, are puny, dwarfed by the majestic forces of nature. Even in 'Right Bank' the vastness of the landscape is emphasized so that the road seems to disappear in it.

And the absence of humans, even if their roads and agricultural plots are still visible, only adds to the eery stillness of these works. It is the tranquility of nature unobserved by humans.

Seen at Amelie Art Gallery, in Beijing's 798 art district.