Review: Drawing on Nature – Taki Katei’s Japan

Words, Col O’Kell
Pictures, Col O’Kell and courtesy of World Museum

You’ll draw plenty of pleasure from this excellent exhibition of illustrations by Japan’s rediscovered master.

If you’ve ever been the subject of a portrait at the hand of a little-one in your life, you’ll be familiar with the seemingly universal compulsion within the young to draw pictures. Indeed I have been the subject of such a ‘flattering’ portrait myself, created by my loveably exuberant five year old nephew Felix. The masterpiece, created in a frenzy of observational glances shot through his golden curls, now proudly sits on my fridge, alongside ironic magnets of Cezannes and Van Eyks. Seemingly this drive to recreate our observations of the world via the simplest of media is an innate human quality and it means that many of us have an understanding of drawing far beyond that of other art forms.

It is with this context that many of us will approach the new exhibition of nature inspired drawings by Taki Katei and his pupils at the World Museum – context which amplifies the impact of the charming works on show.

The exhibition features eighty drawings from the museum’s collection that were originally created for a range of purposes, including for use as educational tools and as preparatory sketches for finished works. The drawings – largely created in black pen and ink with the occasional symbolic flash of colour – are an exquisite triumph of content, composition and technique. Many of the works feature cropped, diagonal compositions of fleeting moments from nature, packed with allegorical meaning and are executed with a precise simplicity that allows easy connection with the subject and artist.

An early highlight of the exhibition is “Bush Peonies” whose idealised composition, delicate foliage and fluttering butterflies leave you longing for a glimpse of the hanging scroll that it was created in preparation for.

As the exhibition continues the work is engagingly analysed from every angle, providing a detailed biography of the artist and his travels; a timeline of the provenance of the drawings and a video projection on calligraphy techniques. All of this augments the well displayed drawings complete with concise and insightful commentary, which are split into five logically themed sections. Indeed there is something for everyone here, with the artistic analysis sitting comfortably alongside areas where young and old artists alike can practice some of Katei’s techniques for themselves.

The use of the drawings as preparatory sketches is highlighted most notably in the work “Chinese Scholar Gentlemen” – a delicate depiction of a snippet of conversation, whose diagonal composition adds to the sense of immediacy. The work has been extrapolated into a feature display which explains how the annotations relate to colours and techniques to be used in the finished work.

The expertly laid out exhibition space on the museum’s second floor has been gloriously and painstakingly transformed into a convincing corner of Japan, complete with paper and wooden shoji panels, tatami mats, cherry blossom trees, and even a virtual coy carp pond – all adding to the East Asian illusion and attesting to the resources and attention that have been lavished on the project.

A theme within the exhibition is the fascinating phenomenon of changing fashion within art history. Awarded the title of Imperial Household artist, Taki Katei was venerated both domestically and internationally during his lifetime and after a period of reduced popularity his work is now being re-discovered and favourably re-evaluated.

The penultimate section of the exhibition focuses on the hidden meanings within many of Katei’s works and articulates a common thread for the veneration of Chinese culture. A highlight here is the piece Waves of the First Rank which captures a scene of two cranes – one which towers majestically over the other, contorted in a moment of preening.  The cropped composition and the vibrant strokes of the water project you into the heart of the dynamic scene, whose allegorical meaning, based on Chinese myth and word play, relates to the success of a young member of an oriental court.

On the whole, this is a triumphant exhibition.. World Museum have taken a collection of delightful works from their own archive and spun them into a riveting, engaging, accessible spectacle – which capitalises on the current widespread interest in Japanese culture. Certainly it will satisfy the infant illustrator in all of us – I think Felix is going to love it!

Drawing on Nature: Taki Katei’s Japan
4 October 2019 – 13 April 2020
World Museum, Liverpool, L3 8EN
www.liverpoolmuseums.org.uk