Hirayama's depth on display at retrospective

by Cristoph Mark, Daily Yomiuri, Sept 14, 2007

Tokyo, Japan -- Pages upon pages have been written on the meaning of Ikuo Hirayama's nihonga paintings, but few of those seem to have given much consideration to either the UNESCO ambassador for peace's technique or his ability to create depth and breadth where none exists.

<< "Jatavana Monastery" 1981 by Ikuo Hirayama

It would be hard not to find yourself in another world when standing in front of The Silk Road: Traveling the Pamir Highlands (2001), which depicts a camel train traversing snowcapped peaks; Vast Sky Over the Silk Road (1982), following another camel train as it passes through the desert; and especially 1987's Evening Glow in Changan, which virtually transports you onto a central street in a long-lost Changan.

But visual depth can mean more than just vast landscapes. A number of Buddhism-themed paintings on show at Ikuo Hirayama: A Retrospective--Pilgrimage for Peace at the National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo, have an appearance of three-dimensionality, relying on layered paint to create a sort of embossing that highlights the folds in robes and expressions on Buddhist figures.

Hirayama's six-decade career has been built largely on his Buddhist-style paintings, as well as "fantasy" and "the holy dream." Such significance can be seen throughout the retrospective, sponsored by The Yomiuri Shimbun, which begins with some of Hirayama's earliest works that recount the legends of Buddhism, particularly the story of Sakyamuni, the religion's founder.

The use of gold is prominent throughout the series, and combined with the use of dark colors and subtlety, this hints at early signs of his future depth of field--particularly in pieces such as 1963's Enlightenment and the previous year's Buddha's First Seven Steps and The Advent of Buddha, which lose their apparent flatness upon closer inspection.

The first few works in the second part of the exhibit--The Route Xuanzang Traversed and The Spread of Buddhism in the East, in which Hirayama retraced the steps of Xuanzang-sanzang, a Chinese Buddhist monk who travelled to India in search of the Buddhist sutras--offer little change in overall style, though Hirayama's color palette has expanded into brighter tints. Depth takes a back seat until 1968, with his Great Stone Buddha in Bamiyan, a portrait of one of the giant statues destined to be destroyed by the Taliban in March 2001.

Great Stone Buddha in Bamiyan serves as a guide to his later works, sharing both the sense of historical memory and the largely golden-brown color scheme that evokes the vast Chinese desert from which he takes much of his subject matter.

The retrospective until this point seems only to be a precursory illustration of his artistic beginnings, and perhaps to explain the golden auras that can be found around Buddhist objects and living beings in his works.

From this point onward, however, the exhibit--following his career, for the most part--moves to the outside world, expanding in both scope and size. The massive set of The Mingsha Sand Hills in Dunhuang and The Sanwei Sand Hills in Dunhuang (both 1985) cover half a corridor wall and depict an expansive valley with a Buddhist temple carved into the side of a mountain at one end.

The composition and use of light peeking through the rows of trees in the large Ancient Road in Kumano Province (1991) invite the viewer to step into the picture and onto a footpath that leads somewhere...perhaps to a temple hidden deep within the forest.

Wholly out of place within the exhibit (second only to his famed Prayer for Peace: Battlefield of Sarajevo [1996], which feels tacked on to the end of the retrospective) but no less stunning is Hirayama's Itsukushima Shrine in Moonlight (1993), casting Hiroshima Prefecture's waterbound shrine in the deep blues of twilight. Hirayama's vision of the temple may be more real and breathtaking than the temple itself.

Though many visitors to an Ikuo Hirayama exhibit may come for the deep meaning and Buddhist significance of his traditional Japanese-style paintings, he has created with his brushes a depth that anyone can appreciate.

"Ikuo Hirayama: A Retrospective--Pigrimage for Peace" will run until Oct. 21 at the National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo, a short walk from Takebashi Station on the Tokyo Metro Tozai Line. Open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., 8 p.m. on Fridays. Closed Sept. 10 and 25, Oct. 1 and 15. 1,300 yen.(03) 5777-8600