Business & Economy Science & Technology Education & Society Sports & Fashion Arts & Entertainment
Top Picks Back Numbers Search

Poems Add New Slant on Museum Collection

September 25, 2000
Pierre-Auguste Renoir's Woman with Hat is on display at a Tokyo museum alongside poetry inspired by it. (Matsukata Collection, The National Museum of Western Art, Tokyo)

The current exhibit at the National Museum of Western Art in Ueno, Tokyo, is described by the museum as "An Encounter Between Poet and Art." For the exhibit, 100 prominent poets composed tanka ("short songs" of 31 syllables following a 5-7-5-7-7 pattern) to match 80 of the famous Western paintings and sculptures in its collection. Set beside the works of art that inspired them, these poems collectively serve to enhance the experience of art appreciation by offering a uniquely Japanese perspective.

Popular Pastime
Composing verses on the changing of seasons or everyday events comes naturally to Japanese people. Haiku and tanka are written not just by professional poets but also by ordinary people as well. Serving as testimony to this are the countless number of people who submit witty or satirical poems to senryu ("light verse," with the same 5-7-5 pattern as the haiku) contests and columns of magazines and newspapers. Thus the National Museum of Western Art's exhibit--while highly original--is hardly surprising. What is in fact surprising is that the attempt to link traditional verses to Western art has never been tried before.

The aim of the exhibit, which came together with the help of the Modern Tanka Poets' Association, is to communicate a new world view. Japanese poetry and Western art may seem incompatible at first, but the poets contributing to the exhibit, say museum organizers, see this meeting of East and West as an invaluable opportunity to express native-Japanese sentiments on Western themes. In short, the exhibit might better be described as "art criticism" through the medium of a traditional poetic form. Some of the museum's most famous pieces--the works of modern European artists like Monet, Renoir, and Millet--serve as material for tanka and a medium for expressing Eastern sensibilities.

The Poets' Approach
The Modern Tanka Poets' Association selected 100 active poets to contribute to the exhibit, including Yoshimi Kondo, Akiko Baba, Yukitsuna Sasaki, and Machi Tawara. And it carefully decided exactly who would compose poems for which pieces.

The poets approached the works of art in different ways. Some glanced at a work only once before producing a poem, while others repeatedly visited the museum to study it closely.

Water Lilies, by Claude Monet. (Matsukata Collection, The National Museum of Western Art, Tokyo)

The tanka these poets contributed for the exhibit generally fall into two categories: "realistic" verses that adhere strictly to the theme and content of the pieces they were written for, and "impressionistic" tanka that speak less to the work itself than to the impact it exerted on the poet. Typical of the former category is Yuko Kawano's poem on Monet's Water Lilies: "So tranquil the pond / For one hundred timeless years / It remains unchanged / Still its surface-water hues / Immutable purple-blue." In the other category is the tanka written by Takashi Okai on the same painting: "The water lily / Is the water's ladylove / The lily petals-- / Her alizarin eyelids / Fluttering delightfully." Also in the impressionistic category is Hiroshi Homura's poem, which was composed for Aristide Maillol's sculpture Ile de France: "Where now does she gaze / As the big navel orange / And the swarming flies / Sink below the horizon / And night descends in their place."

The Tanka-Art Relationship
This is, of course, not the first time that tanka and Western art have crossed paths; in the 1910s many prominent Japanese poets--Mokichi Saito, Hakushu Kitahara, and Yugure Maeda, to name but a few--composed verses based on the paintings of Impressionists. In fact, it could even be argued that ever since the Meiji period (1868-1912), when Japan embarked on a course of modernization, Western art has served as an inspiration for Japanese poets.

The present exhibit, which runs until October 29, 2000, boasts some famous names on its register of participating poets. But the real value of the project may lie in the encouragement it gives to everyone--not just celebrated poets--to compose haiku and tanka for artwork they see at museums and elsewhere. This would add breadth to the range of subjects suitable for traditional poetic forms and enable people to appreciate art in new and unexpected ways.

Back to Main Index

Trends in JapanCopyright (c) 2000 Japan Information Network. Edited by Japan Echo Inc. based on domestic Japanese news sources. Articles presented here are offered for reference purposes and do not necessarily represent the policy or views of the Japanese Government.