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Art | Opening the doors to Japanese art

18th-century couple's works are on view at the Art Museum.

Japanese art might be puzzling or difficult for some people, but in the relatively few American museums that collect and exhibit it effectively, it's always a welcome change of pace in the special exhibition galleries.

The Philadelphia Museum of Art is one of those institutions; since 2000, it has organized detailed explorations of three specific and largely unfamiliar chapters in Japanese art history.

"Japanese Masters of the Brush" is the latest effort, and perhaps the most important in terms of exposing Americans to work that is both top quality and significant to the way Japanese art has evolved over the last two centuries.

It features ink paintings and calligraphy by Ike Taiga and Tokuyama Gyokuran, husband and wife, who were famous in their country during the mid-to-late 18th century. Taiga remains a major figure in Japan, but his wife, once the most admired female artist in that country, has long since slipped into obscurity.

This show of more than 200 works, including 125 from Japanese collections, is formally distinguished in several ways. It's the first exhibition in the United States devoted to Taiga, and the first for Gyokuran anywhere. The Japanese loans include two designated as National Treasures - a pair of six-fold screens - that are being shown outside Japan for the first time. The loans also include 10 Important Cultural Properties, the category below National Treasure.

These distinctions are impressive, and important to the museum's promotion of this singular event, but they don't substantially influence one's perception or enjoyment of the work. Rather than focusing on such superlatives, the viewer needs to concentrate on becoming attuned to the formats and stylistic conventions particular to Japanese art in general.

Roughly three-quarters of the art - you can think of them either as paintings or drawings - belongs to Taiga, who is the more virtuosic and versatile of the two. Gyokuran's work isn't segregated from his, so it doesn't stand apart as a distinct body.

Given that this show represents her first exposure in a major museum, it seems odd that the Art Museum chose this arrangement. However, one can usually identify her paintings by their style, which is a bit more delicate, detailed and refined than her husband's.

Taiga and Gyokuran, who was also celebrated in her time as a poet, shared a small studio in Kyoto, but they weren't collaborators in the purest sense. The exhibition contains two exhibits, each a pair of landscape scrolls, to which both contributed an image. Otherwise, it's his and hers.

The couple made their living from art, painting fans - Taiga began his career in his mid-teens as a fan painter - hand scrolls and hanging scrolls, and small album paintings, all in ink on paper or silk. Many works incorporate poems, which are translated on the object labels.

"Masters of the Brush" is a challenging show to navigate. Aside from the language, the subject matter and the equally unfamiliar stylistic conventions, viewers must contend with a mazelike installation scheme and low light levels, needed to prevent fading of the fragile paper and silk and sensitive inks. The works are hung in tall wall cases behind Plexiglas panels. This makes for less-than-ideal viewing conditions, but that's usually the case with works on paper, especially old ones.

I mention these details mainly to indicate that this exhibition demands a bit more commitment, patience and time than you might expend on one of impressionist still lifes. Yet that's part of the change of pace that makes it both refreshing and enlightening.

There are six thematic sections, comprising early and late works, Chinese themes and Chinese landscapes - a lot of Taiga's work is based on Chinese models - calligraphy and Japanese themes. These divisions don't matter all that much in terms of appreciating Taiga's impressive range, his innovations and particularly the animated spirit of his brushwork.

The key quality, which defines "change of pace" for me, is fluidity and economy of expression. Whether one is looking at a landscape, an extreme close-up of bamboo or a calligraphy, the strokes seem to flow effortlessly from the artist's brush.

It's as if the mark-making were controlled subconsciously, like a reflex. The viewer senses both the intense concentration needed to do this and then the release. The process becomes liberating not only for the artist but for his or her audience.

Unless we're talking about abstract expressionism, this isn't what we're used to in the European-American painting tradition, which looks and feels much more calculated. Add to that the fact that the landscapes in particular are more suggestive than descriptive, more idealized than empirical. Even Taiga's calligraphy is energetic in a way that suggests impulse and improvisation rather than conforming to a traditional standard.

Another obvious quality of Taiga's work is its stylistic eclecticism. There's so much variety, one could be excused for thinking that a half-dozen artists had contributed to the show, rather than only two. Taiga's experimentation gave subsequent generations of Japanese artists license to move away from more rigid formulas of the past.

Taiga was a prodigy who began to study calligraphy at age 6. His technique in the various works ranges from a controlled precision similar to that used by his wife to a startling pointillist approach that turns up in the section devoted to Chinese landscapes.

This is probably the show's most enchanting section, so once you find it, spend some time with it. Taiga also became renowned for a sophisticated finger-painting style that will not remind you in the least of anything you or your children produced in first grade. Four large finger-painted scrolls will surprise and dazzle you.

"Japanese Masters of the Brush" will be substantially reconfigured after its first six weeks, on June 11. Because the works are susceptible to light damage, all the Japanese loans on view now - about 60 percent of the checklist - will be replaced then with equivalent works. So at least two visits really are recommended before the show closes July 22.

If the exhibition proves to be too much to absorb even in several visits, the museum has produced a voluminous, beautifully illustrated catalog that permits more leisurely contemplation. It's $45 in paper; the hardcover edition, published with Yale University Press, is $75.

Art | Japanese Masters

"Ike Taiga and Tokuyama Gyokuran: Japanese Masters of the Brush" continues at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, 26th Street and the Parkway, through July 22. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays and to 8:45 p.m. Fridays. Admission is $12 general, $9 for visitors 62 and older, and $8 for students with ID and visitors 13 to 18. Pay what you wish Sundays. Information: 215-763-8100, 215-684-7500 or