Those who study the past too closely are doomed to repeat it

T. and I went down to Mishima this weekend, to eat eels and immerse ourselves in hot water. We also dropped by the Sano Museum to see their exhibit about the new Genji Monogatari picture scroll recreation -- re-enactment, really, given the focus on original methods, tints and tools.

You can get a general idea of the principle by comparing OKADA Motoshi's recreation of the second Suzumushi picture to the original (via Arthur Choi's handy page). Obviously a lot depends on how the images are lit, digitized, and stored, but you can see that Okada's has already lost that shibui, atmospheric feeling that is the very foundation of the appeal of these images to us today.

And Okada's is apparently one of the recreation industry's more subdued styles. The "Heisei recreation", of which no individual piece dates from before the late 1990s, and which is based on the very latest scholarship and investigation, is garish beyond belief. I found the greens especially jarring and ugly. If you saw this stuff in a gift shop, you would assume it was an ultra-cheap knock-off, unfit even to shine the metaphorical boots of the browned, crumbly original -- and yet, the people who commissioned that original, who thought it so appealing and cared for it so well that it survives to this day, delighted in precisely that repulsive shade of aqua.

Lesson: if you revere ancient art to the extent that you come to attach as much importance to the accidents of time and wear as you do to its actual content, do not ever attempt to recreate the original as the ancients themselves saw it. You will only be disappointed.

Popularity factor: 7


As Tanizaki might have pointed out, the "ancients" didn't see this stuff under 500W halogen lighting.

Try putting it in a corner of the room and turning the lights off. Take off that tight western underwear. Have someone pour you some sake.

Feel better?


I felt exactly the same way when I saw the Sistine Chapel in 1994, just after the restoration work was done Michelangelo's work there. It's interesting how the patina of age lends authenticity to what we would otherwise have found unremarkable or ghastly had we first seen it new. But then, tastes change. That green might be next century's big thing!

At least it's still around.


Jack: Well, the room was pretty dim, and they did have (photos of) the originals and the (actual) remakes side by side... but yeah, I see your point, context is important. It would take a lot of sake to get me comfortable with those colors, though.

Crusoe: It reminded me of when I learnt that ancient statuary used to be painted, and was shocked at such a blatant display of poor taste on behalf of all those mediterranean cultures.


But perhaps the Greeks and Romans used tasteful colors and . . . oh who are we kidding? It was probably gross. Still, when it comes to scrolls, I like the recreations for an entirely seperate reason. They are flat and sort-of . . . lacking in that certain something. These recreationists have the millions of artistic and stylistic revolutions of the past 1000 years clouding their vision, and you can not just 'forget' that kind of subconcious influence, right?


Yes, I have learned that every civilization around the world has at least one thing in common: it was founded by people with absolutely abominable color sense. (In their defense, it was much harder to get non-painful colors back then, since everything came from grinding up rocks, plants and animal parts.)


And the spicing of their food was too heavy, too. And I suspect if we could hear their poets recite, it would seem a thousand times more mannered and repulsive than the extant recordings from a few generations back (Yeats, etc.) The past is a different country, and it's better to collect the postcards than to actually visit!


A couple of weeks ago I visited Zuiganji in Matsushima, Miyagi Prefecture. The wall paintings there had recently been restored to all their former garish glory, and I have to concur that it was the greens that really got to me.

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