Influenced by the ascendant philosophical movements of Zen and the refined animism of Shinto, the paintings took on some of the risky spontaneity of performance art, with such innovations as spattered ink or gouache bleeding into gouache. In close-up (which Hoagland favours) Edo screen details could be lifted right out of the works of such Western modernists as Jackson Pollack or Gustav Klimt.
No coincidence, that. With the collapse of the Edo order and Japan’s vaunted “Opening” to the outside world, the shogunate’s dethroned elites were abruptly reduced to selling off their art treasures to avid Western collectors, forming the basis of many of Europe and America’s most celebrated museum collections to this day.
The resulting Western influx of “japonaiserie” was an eye-opener to such impressionist luminaries as Monet and Van Gogh and continues to inspire fresh artwork to this day. So Edo art was doubly avant garde, Hoagland points out – innovative in its own time and place, and a cutting-edge influence in the modern West.
And despite repeated efforts to “kill” (i.e. discredit) the Edo legacy, first by the modernizers of its successor regime, the Meiji Restoration, and then by the Westernizers of Japan’s post-World War II coalition, the cultural cachet of the shogunate is once again rebounding among art lovers and scholars, according to Hoagland. Edo Avant Garde was co-sponsored and first aired by Japan’s public TV NHK network, where it generated widespread excitement among a public keen to reconnect with masterpieces long lost to Western collections.
“See what 350 years of peace and stability will get you?” Hoagland boasts. “When and where else has the world seen that?”
Ursula Skil-saws in some textural touches. Image: VIFF
Surely not in the life and times of Ursula von Rydingsvard. Born in Nazi Germany to Ukrainian/Polish labour conscripts, her nine-member peasant family languished in refugee camps before relocation to a blue-collar Connecticut mill town. Her embittered father worked three jobs with bullish strength to support his brood, but brutalized them all, physically and psychologically.
It was to disprove his contempt of her, she says, that she determined, at all costs, to make it as an artist. That single-mindedness tided her through a self-funded college education, a brief and abusive marriage in California’s hippie heyday, single motherhood and hand-to-mouth loft-living in New York while she worked out her own distinctive medium.
That medium turned out to be wood, at least initially – whole pallet-loads of cedar that she’d bundle and gouge with chainsaws and Skil saws, then tint and singe and stack in provocative, vaguely zoomorphic shapes, often in natural outdoor settings. She has long tried to branch out into other materials – everything from unravelled garment threads to pig intestines.
But even now, when she and her extensive team of studio and technical collaborators are commissioned to make huge, iconic public artworks in such media as copper and bronze, she still often turns to wood for the original casting models.
Whatever she’s trying to prove to the long-gone spectre of her father, one would think she’s already made her point. But, as one contemporary artist notes in the film, she continues to press on with undiminished energy as she rounds on her 80’s.
All too easy to conflate avant garde art with abstraction. But both these films depict artists driven by the opposite thrill: sheer, risky, up-against-the-wall concretism and the exhilaration of hands-on contact with material media.
No wonder, while the West dallied with Abstract Expressionism, Japan’s post-World War II avant gardists gathered under the banner of Gutai (具體, or concretism), paying explicit homage to their Edo predecessors, Hoagland notes. Ursula, had she heard of them, might have happily joined in their number.
Famed for such stunts as oil painting with their bare feet while dangling above the canvas from ropes, they were long discounted in the West. But now they once again command top dollar at worldwide auctions and hang on museum walls right opposite the Jackson Pollacks.