Ike and Tina, they are not.
But Ike (pronounced EE-Kay) Taiga and his wife, Tokuyama Gyokuran, cut their own countercultural swath through 18th-century Japan, grooving on old Chinese poetry, painting on paper and silk, dipping fingers and brushes in ink, contemplating life from both the top of Mount Fuji and the interiors of calligraphy, and generally forging an admirably bohemian lifestyle in which they rarely swept up.
"It's not all Zen," says Felice Fischer, for the last 35 years the go-to curator for all things Asian at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Fischer may now be better known in Kyoto, where Taiga and Gyokuran kept their paper-strewn studio, than in Philadelphia. For the last four years, she has been bowing to hosts and kneeling on tatami mats in homes and museums all over Japan to gain access to the works of art and poetry - including screens, sliding doors, and scrolls hidden away in wooden boxes - by both Taiga and Gyokuran.
The result is "Ike Taiga and Tokuyama Gyokuran: Japanese Masters of the Brush," an exhibit of unexpected wit, liveliness and relevance - in addition to beauty - that opens today at the museum.
Fischer would prefer that visitors see the exhibit twice. Because of the fragile media (paper and silk) and the ink, basically like a watercolor, the lenders of these works - including such Japanese bodies as the Agency for Protection of Cultural Properties - permit them to be displayed for only six weeks at a time. So on June 11, what is currently exhibited will rotate out and a whole new show will replace it.
You know this exhibit is not going to be some antechamber to a shiatsu massage with soothing water dripping over rocks when one of the first works Fischer leads you to is a pair of screens called Song of the Eight Great Drinkers.
We are not talking tea. Portrayed are all manner of poetic lushes - philosophical, meditative, and just plain inebriated - as described in a poem by Tang Dynasty poet Du Fu (712-770), one of the Chinese literati whose work Taiga regularly got down with: " . . . Li Bo: A single drink, and he writes a hundred poems. Then falls asleep inside a wine shop in the marketplace at Changan . . . Zhang Xu drinks three cups, then transmits his work as Sage of Cursive Calligraphy."
"It's very contemporary in lots of ways," Fischer says. "It's not fussy. It's not finicky. There's a largesse, a generosity of spirit you see in there."
There are grumpy monks and horned goblins and little contemplative figures with twinkles in their eyes, usually nearly hidden in the depths of large-scale landscapes, but occasionally doing things like eating sweet potatoes. There are provocatively mind-expanding titles like Essay on Fulfilling One's Desire; Monk and Mind Landscape; Taking an Interest in Clouds and Haze; The Three Laughers, and, by Gyokuran, Landscape With Sages Playing Go.
The show and its curator have attracted a lot of notice in Japan. Last week, Tatsuji Watanabe and Toshihiro Ajioka, two journalists from the Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper in Osaka, were getting a preview of the exhibit and seeking a sit-down with Fischer, who they said is revered in Japan.
Some of the works are being exhibited outside Japan for the first time. Those that were kept in private homes typically were stored away, scrolls unrolled only on special occasions, and with great ceremony. Taiga's Ten Conveniences, an album of 10 small works, is designated a National Treasure in Japan. The exhibit will only be in Philadelphia.
Poetry is a central part of the exhibit; Taiga, who died in 1776 at 53, and his wife, who died eight years later at 56, wrote their own poetry and also made extensive use of writings by the Chinese literati of the 10th century.
Their poetry and calligraphy are of particular interest to Fischer, who received her doctorate from Columbia in Japanese poetry, with particular interest in female poets, and only later moved into the art field. That poetry is collected and translated as part of the exhibit and the catalog.
There is also a major section of Taiga's calligraphy. Some of it resembles the work of 20th-century abstract expressionists (think Franz Kline), while other examples are more like "writing the Bible on the head of a pin," as Fischer puts it. Some of the poetry is his own. ("This lookout sits so perfectly on the ridge: I let my eyes wander over this world beyond the world. . . . ")
There are sections that Fischer says may have even inspired the impressionists. Though no one can be sure that happened, suffice it to say Ike Taiga and Georges Seurat would have had some points to discuss.
"Did van Gogh see something like this in Mr. Tanguy's paint shop in Paris?" where he was known to have purchased Japanese prints in the late 19th century, Fischer wonders. Works like Twelve Views of West Lake or Six Perspectives may remind you of Monet's paintings of haystacks, or of the Thames at Westminster. Taiga was nothing if not an artist who could really look at a thing, and see it differently every time.
Fischer, who late last week was putting the last touches on an exhibit in which she did everything from select and research the art to pick the paint color for the walls, said her interest in Japanese art began with Japanese family friends she met as a child.
She became interested in Taiga in 1967 when, as a graduate student at Columbia, she drove down for an exhibit at the Philadelphia Museum Art and saw a pair of screens on exhibit, Rising Tide at the Ch'ien-t'ang River. (In the same show, she also saw a section of the Lotus Scroll by Hon'ami Koetsu, another Japanese artist, which led her ultimately to curate a major exhibit of Koetsu's work several years ago.)
"Taiga's been on my mind ever since," said Fischer, who joined the museum staff after graduate school and has been there ever since. This exhibit is - as the last 35 years at the museum have been - a labor of love.
Though witty and personable, Fischer says it was her reserved demeanor and silver hair that helped her secure about 45 works from Japanese collections. "It still is in many ways a conservative society. I think having gray hair helped. They do respect people with gray hair, unlike us."
Fischer hopes Japan's art will be as appealing to American museumgoers as its tekka maki. (And, yes, the museum restaurant has created a Taiga menu. Fischer also considered, but nixed, an "I like Ike" button for the gift shop.)
Truthfully, though, her passion for the genre is still a bit of a mystery to her nearest and dearest. "My relatives keep saying, 'You look more and more Japanese every time we see you,' " she says.