Museum  October 21, 2019  Caterina Bellinetti

Changing and Unchanging Things: Two Artists in Postwar Japan

Asian Art Museum

Isamu Noguchi in Nara with Saburo Hasegawa, Michio Noguchi, and other friends on his 1950 trip to Japan.

Unpleasant news are heard day and night through radio and papers here too. But, Zen, Laozi, Taoism or Haiku help us much in keeping peace of mind in uneasy days. This is my belief through the experiences during the last war. Simplified life, absolute pacifism, resistance through non-resistance.

With these words, the painter Saburo Hasegawa described his view of the post-WWII Japan to his friend Isamu Noguchi. It was January 12th, 1951, and the two artists had met a little over a year before in Japan. Thanks to the Bollinger Fellowship, Noguchi had left the United States to embark on a two-year world trip that would bring him to Japan in 1950. There, he met Hasegawa who helped him as a guide and a translator.

courtesy Kyoto Museum of Modern Art

Saburo Hasegawa (Japanese, 1906–1957), Nature, 1952. Wood rubbings; ink on paper. Kyoto Museum of Modern Art.

courtesy Hasegawa Family Collection. 

Saburo Hasegawa (Japanese, 1906–1957), From Laozi, 1954. Ink on paper. Hasegawa Family Collection. © Estate of Saburo Hasegawa. 

The friendship between the two artists did not only enrich their private lives, but also the development of their art in the post-WWII decades. “They were both concerned with the beauty of tradition and the power of abstraction,” said Dr. Karin G. Oen, one of the curators of the exhibition Changing and Unchanging Things: Noguchi and Hasegawa in Postwar Japan, currently on view at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco. Their friendship and artistic collaboration was based on the fact that they were both “interested in synthesizing modern art and modern forms with traditional Japanese aesthetics and materials,” noted Dr. Oen. 

Isamu Noguchi was born in 1904 in Los Angeles, the son of the Japanese poet Yonejiro Noguchi and American writer Léonie Gilmour. He was a landscape architect, sculptor, and designer (the iconic Noguchi Table is one of his creations). Saburo Hasegawa was born in Japan in 1906, graduated from the Tokyo University of Arts in 1926, studied painting in Paris in the 1930s, and exhibited his works in Europe and the US. During Noguchi’s trip to Japan in 1950, they traveled together around the country visiting temples and cultural sites. For both artists, it was important to explore art and its social value as well as the impact that WWII had in the creation of the new world order. The birth of globalization led Noguchi and Isegawa to wonder about their own cultural identities and the importance of artistic roots in an ever-changing and more globalized world. 

The strength of Noguchi and Hasegawa’s works, and of this exhibition, is simplicity. The essential, visible to the eye, emerges from Noguchi’s sculptures and Hasegawa’s calligraphies and drawings. This simplicity gives space to meaning and abstraction. For instance, Noguchi’s jars Man and Woman (1952) were created according to traditional Japanese craftmanship using Bizen stoneware clay and made by ceramists of the Kaneshige Toyo studio. These jars represent two abstract human forms while maintaining their practical purpose as vessels.

Caterina Bellinetti

Isamu Noguchi (American, 1904–1988), Man and Woman, 1952. Bizen stoneware.

Among Noguchi’s creations, it is My Mu that perfectly brings together the materiality of sculpture with the philosophical concept of emptiness. Based on the character mu 無, meaning nothing, without, nothingness, the sculpture resembles a vessel where no physical matter can be contained. Based on Chapter 11 of the Laozi (also known as Daodejing), the philosophical and religious Chinese text of Daoism, the sculpture shows the importance of emptiness. “Mould clay into a bowl,” reads the Laozi, “the empty space makes it useful.” Vessels are useful only if empty; what is useful, therefore, is emptiness.

Isamu Noguchi (American, 1904–1988), ​​​​​​​My Mu, 1950. Seto stoneware.
Caterina Bellinetti

Isamu Noguchi (American, 1904–1988), My Mu, 1950. Seto stoneware.

Isamu Noguchi (American, 1904–1988), Pregnant Bird, 1958
Kevin Noble

Isamu Noguchi (American, 1904–1988), Pregnant Bird, 1958. Greek marble. The Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum, New York. © The Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum, New York/ARS.

Isamu Noguchi (American, 1904–1988), Calligraphics, 1957.
Kevin Noble

Isamu Noguchi (American, 1904–1988), Calligraphics, 1957. Iron, wood, rope, and metal. The Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum, New York. © The Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum, New York/ARS.

Isamu Noguchi (American, 1904–1988), War, 1952. Shigaraki stoneware. Sogetsu Foundation, Tokyo. Photo
courtesy Sogetsu Foundation, Tokyo

Isamu Noguchi (American, 1904–1988), War, 1952. Shigaraki stoneware. Sogetsu Foundation, Tokyo. Photo

Hasegawa’s take on the same passage is a calligraphy piece with images of a vessel, a house, and a wheel. Even in this case, the empty space between the characters and the figures enhances and materialize the meaning of Laozi’s verses. In a similar way, Hasewaga transcribed and transformed a passage from another Chinese philosophical text, the Zhuangzi. His The Butterfly Dream (1956) is a calligraphic exercise based on the verses: “Once upon a time, I, Zhuangzi, dreamed I was a butterfly [...] Did Zhuangzi dream he was a butterfly, or did the butterfly dream he was Zhuangzi?” The characters on the paper resemble the flight of butterflies, purposeful and ethereal, as well as the fragility and endurance of the human mind.

courtesy Hasegawa Family Collection

Saburo Hasegawa (Japanese, 1906–1957), The Butterfly Dream—from Zhuangzi, 1956. Ink on paper. Hasegawa Family Collection. © Estate of Saburo Hasegawa.

The vibrancy of Hasegawa calligraphies, prints, and drawings contrast and complement the immobility of Noguchi’s sculptures. The way in which this exhibition is constructed conveys the feeling of being in a garden where water flows among the stillness of trees. Yet the real message lies in the coexistence between the Japanese cultural environment that was shared by the two artists and their international, global outlook.

About the Author

Caterina Bellinetti

Dr. Caterina Bellinetti is an art historian specialised in photography and Chinese visual propaganda and culture.

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