Divine Underwear

Imagine a work of art so intimate that for anyone to see it -- to see it yourself, for that matter -- you had to remove your clothes. No, I´m not talking tattoos here. I´m referring to the art of haori no uraji, also known as haura. These Japanese terms denote the jacketlike garments worn by Japanese men over their kimonos. And get this: The art part is on the inside lining of the haori so that it remains invisible as long as the garment is being worn.

Samples of this hidden art are now on view at the Coral Springs Museum of Art as part of an exhibition called ¨Art of Asia: Focus on Japan,¨ which features mostly items on loan from the Morikami Museum and Japanese Gardens in Delray Beach, including a selection of photography.

The haori segment of the show is a strange little bit of business to take in, knowing that the framed silk panels on display were originally meant to be seen rarely and even then by a select, limited audience. Haori were once an exclusively male item of clothing, although today women wear them as well. The works included here represent the male variety, which draws on a relatively muted palette, in contrast to the brightly colored feminine versions. The subject matter of the silks, which may be woven, printed, dyed, or painted, is traditionally masculine, featuring such things as samurai in battle, lions, and the archetypal pairing of dragons and tigers, along with landscapes and other more subdued material.

One natural reaction to such art, especially in the contemporary Western world, might be to assume that it´s an expression of utmost vanity -- a form of art that is withheld from the common viewer and reserved for its owner and the privileged few he chooses to let see it. Nothing could be further from the truth. To grasp the art of haori, you have to consider its cultural and historical context.

A museum handout characterizes this art as ¨a legacy of the sumptuary laws of Japan´s Edo Period (1600-1868),¨ which sound pretty much like restrictions to govern conspicuous consumption. Such laws put a damper on the desire of the era´s upwardly mobile merchant class to show off their newly acquired wealth. And so a man of both means and taste might turn to an artist to create a hidden means of expressing himself.

It all sounds a little fussy, and while such laws are long gone, it also makes sense that a people generally known for their reserved temperament would remain fond of the art form. The garment linings in the Coral Springs show are all from the 20th Century, specifically from 1925 through 1989. Given their stylized formality, they´re presented with appropriate restraint, accompanied by text panels that include detailed information regarding their historical and cultural significance. A glass case in one gallery alcove features a haori in its entirety, turned inside out to show the silk lining in all its glory.

A second component of ¨Art of Asia: Focus on Japan,¨ also on loan from the Morikami, is a small photography exhibit including works by Haruzo Ohashi and Kazuhide Takada. The latter focuses on Mount Fuji, that ubiquitous symbol of Japan through the ages, revered, as the handout indicates, ¨for its symmetry and simplicity of form, for its graceful contours that sweep skyward.¨

At 12,385 feet, Mount Fuji -- or, as the Japanese know it, Fuji-san -- is the highest mountain in the country, topped by a volcanic crater ringed with snow. Takada, a railway motorman, has been photographing the mountain since 1991, and no doubt a large part of his challenge has been to see anew something that is one of the most photographed subjects on the planet. He rises to the challenge admirably.

Takada, who was born in 1944, grew up in the shadow of Fuji, in the port city of Numazu, where he still lives. Not surprisingly, he took the majestic peak for granted until he was an adult, when he started trying to capture its grandeur on film. It wasn´t until he was 50 that one of his shots was chosen for a juried art show, and since then, his work has consistently achieved recognition.

Like the great 19th-century Japanese printmaker Hokusai, known for his Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji series, Takada often relegates the mountain to the background. As in real life, it becomes a constant presence in the infinite variety of life unfolding on all sides of it. As the handout sums up, ¨Takada´s interest in Mt. Fuji seems almost spiritual. His Fuji remains immutable and unmoving while all around it the spectacle of nature is alive with growth and change. Fuji is a sentinel, watching over nature´s vitality like a great protective deity.¨

The exhibition´s remaining photographs, by Haruzo Ohashi, are more intimate images of Japanese gardens. This older artist -- he was born in 1927 -- worked as a freelance photojournalist in the 1950s and simultaneously grew interested in shooting gardens, which in Japan are typically divided into half a dozen distinct types.

Ohashi, whose first book of garden photos was published in 1969, has estimated that there are more than 1,300 gardens of historical significance in Japan. He has shot more of them than any other photographer, and he´s a master at capturing them in different moods and moments -- at sunset, for instance, or dappled with snow in winter.

¨Art of Asia: Focus on Japan¨ is rounded out by a case containing a sampling of Japanese children´s toys made of papier-mché and string. Purchased in 1976 in Okinawa, they´re from the personal collection of Coral Springs Museum Executive Director Barbara K. O´Keefe and add a nice touch to this satisfying show.

As I mentioned earlier, most of the items in this exhibition are on loan from the Morikami Museum. It is an exquisite place that I have visited regularly for nearly 20 years, and I am constantly amazed at how many South Floridians, even those who have heard of it, have never been there. Aside from its many other charms, it offers a rare opportunity to see and walk through the kinds of gardens that are the subjects of Ohashi´s lovely photographs.

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Michael Mills