Scripps curator discusses nature in Japanese art at Petterson

by Mick Rhodes |

Coinciding with the Petterson Museum’s “The Art of Time: Japan and its Seasons,” which opens Friday, February 21, Meher McArthur’s lecture, “Nature as Inspiration in Japanese art,” could not have been timelier.

Ms. McArthur spoke Wednesday at the Petterson about the importance of nature in the country’s culture and how the Japanese have for centuries used natural elements as subjects of their art and literature.

“For example, there was a poem written in an anthology about a courtier exiled from Kyoto, and he was wandering with his entourage and stumbled on some irises blooming in a swamp,” said Ms. McArthur, the curator of academic programs and collections at Scripps College’s Ruth Chandler Williamson Gallery.

“The irises reminded him of his wife back in the capital, and he composed this poem about the irises and how they made him nostalgic for his home. This poem about irises has stuck in the Japanese psyche for centuries. There are many paintings by famous artists of irises in a swamp beside a bridge that evoke this poem.”

Ms. McArthur, 53, has been at Scripps since 2018. She is the author of several books on Asian art and Buddhism, most recently New Expressions in Origami Art, in 2017. She is the former curator of East Asian Art at the Pacific Asia Museum, and creative director of the Storrier Stearns Japanese Garden in Pasadena. She has written about art for Artillery and Orientations, and is a regular contributor to KCET’s Artbound.

She was born in India, grew up in Scotland, Canada and England, and studied Japanese at Cambridge University with an eye on going into finance. A trip to Japan after Cambridge altered her life’s trajectory.

“I fell in love with the culture and the art,” she said. She headed back to school to study Japanese art history. “I wanted to understand the beliefs of the Japanese people and how they expressed those beliefs in art.”

Her career became working in museums, and writing and teaching about Japanese art and aesthetic. Her accent is as fascinating as her resumé, with the elegance of India combined with the hard “eh” of the Canadian dialect.

“There’s a lot of connections between nature, literature and art in Japan,” Ms. McArthur said. “It may also be present in other cultures, but it’s very strong in Japan.”

In stately European homes we see portraits of people who lived there before: family members and important people from the past, Ms. McArthur said. In similar Japanese homes, one might see images of animals and birds paired with particular plants, such as an eagle and a pine tree painted on a sliding door, or tigers and bamboo.

“Often these are scenes of nature, but they are very symbolic of political and military power,” Ms. McArthur explained. “Nature comes indoors in Japan and it’s very much part of their daily life, outdoors and indoors.”

The country also a very deep tradition of invoking the seasons.

“The Japanese are an agricultural nation, so they have a very deep connection to the seasonal changes, and so a lot of their art relates to the seasons,” she explained.

Art is displayed seasonally, she said. A painting of a pine tree, for example, would only be displayed in winter because its evergreen qualities represent resilience.

“Whereas you would show a cherry blossom in the springtime, or a hydrangea in the summer, or a chrysanthemum in the fall,” she said. “There are natural motifs that are reserved for specific seasons, and you see those in paintings, you see them on kimono as well, and also on ceramics.”

Nature is everywhere in Japanese culture, Ms. McArthur said, a connection to the natural world that persists even among some of the most artificial spaces on the planet.

“It’s a real paradox of a culture to me,” Ms. McArthur said. “There’s a very modern, very trashy side to Japanese culture in many ways, like all the vending machines everywhere where you can get cans of coffee and then throw them away.

“And yet next to that vending machine, you might see a house with a little flower vase that’s hanging on the outside wall, where the resident has put a flower out to add a little bit of nature to that pocket of concrete. There’s a real interesting dichotomy in Japanese culture that I don’t see as strongly in other cultures.”

To outsiders, especially Americans, it’s tough to imagine how these two disparate realities coexist. But to Ms. McArthur, who’s spent so much time in Japan and made her career studying its art, it’s easier to explain.

“Seventy percent of the land is wooded and uninhabitable, so cities in Japan, even though some of them are sprawling—Tokyo seems to go on forever—you’re still pretty close to nature,” she said. “You feel really close to the rice fields and close to a hike in the woods. Maybe because those urban areas are so horribly concreted and quite ugly in many cases, there is a hunger for that.”

It’s a rarity when an academic’s area of expertise collides with the biggest job of all, parenting. But an unintended fringe benefit of a liberal arts education has come home to roost nicely: her teenage son recently found interest in anime, and has even ventured to draw in the Japanese animation style himself.

“Our worlds are connecting more right now because he’s fascinated by the stories and the artistic style,” Ms. McArthur said. “And that has its roots in Japanese graphic arts like the woodblock prints of a couple hundred years ago. It’s fun that he’s studying something that I’ve studied, but he’s coming at it from a different angle.

“And he actually has asked me if we can go to Japan and see the cherry blossoms this year, which is an amazing request from a 14 year old,” she continued. “I’m not cool most of the time, so it’s nice to get a request.”


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