Right from the get-go, “Takashi Murakami: Lineage of Eccentrics” is deeply goofy. It’s smart, too, planting a flag on unassailable art-historical ground. That goofiness should be a glittering thread in art history’s tapestry — and that’s why this show slakes a long thirst.
Murakami’s exhibition, an exuberant collaboration with Japanese art historian Nobuo Tsuji that digs with relish into the Museum of Fine Arts’ magnificent collection, is up at the MFA through April 1.
His new, epic painting, “Transcendent Attacking a Whirlwind,” hangs at the entrance.
A serpentine sea monster coils at the center. Water spirals and curls everywhere in paint-spattered white strands over a pulsing, patterned surface. Transcendents — superhumans — face the cyclone from either end of the giant painting. One is large, blue, and double-jointed. Fierce as they may be, these avenging immortals are overgrown and endearing, painted with affectionate humor.
The imagery comes from two works by 18th-century artist Soga Shohaku. One, Shohaku’s “Transcendent and Whirlwind” is a screen in the MFA’s collection — and, most unfortunately, away on loan. In it, one brave fellow confronts the whirlwind — a single, ominous, inky loop. Two others lie in a heap like a pair of slapstick comics.
Tsuji’s 1970 book, “Lineage of Eccentrics,” shook up the tenets of Japanese art history, with its examination of playful outliers such as Shohaku, and Utagawa Kuniyoshi, renderer of mischievous cats and feisty warriors in the MFA’s concurrent exhibition, “Showdown! Kuniyoshi vs. Kunisada.”
A soberer story of Japanese art history was formulated in the late 19th century. The West had arrived after two centuries of Japanese isolationism, and brought with it Western academic frameworks and a degree of Victorian prudery. Codifying Japanese tradition, scholars ignored a strain of artists who dealt in the madcap and the monstrous — the progenitors of today’s anime and manga artists.
Among those early formulators, count early MFA curators such as Ernest Francisco Fenollosa, who helped build the museum’s Japanese collection. Tsuji helped re-catalog it between 1991 and 2005. Murakami had a solo show here in 2001. Anne Nishimura Morse, the MFA’s senior curator of Japanese Art, worked with both men, and this singular show grew from the ground of their longstanding relationships.
From a Western standpoint, Murakami is pure pop: Like Andy Warhol and Jeff Koons, he parlays frothy images into brands with commercial potential. But this show, deliciously orchestrated by Morse, spells out how rooted he is in his own cultural heritage, and specifically in the playful art championed by Tsuji.
He read Tsuji’s book as a young man; and painted “Impossible Aim,” based on a 12th-century legend Tsuji relates about Gisei, an artist pestered into painting when presented with a long scroll. Gisei made quick work of it, painting an archer at one end, a target at the other, and the trajectory of the arrow across the length of the scroll.
Murakami set his own long painting on silver leaf, and placed his iconic, mouse-eared cartoon character Mr. DOB at both ends — one shoots, the other ducks. Tsuji saw the painting, Morse said in an interview, and recognized it as a personal message. In time, he became Murakami’s mentor.
The silver in “Impossible Aim” flashes across the picture plane. Murakami’s “superflat” aesthetic compresses space; everything pops along the surface. But that’s not new. In Ito Jakuchu’s 18th-century painting “White Cockatoo on a Pine Branch,” the pale bird perches among pine needles painted in explosive, brisk brushstrokes that yank us to the picture plane.
Superflat likewise compresses conceptual gaps — between fine art and applied art, high art and low art — ideas consistent with the traditional Japanese concept of kazari, which means “will to decorate.” Paintings are not valued over décor; beauty is what matters.
Morse devotes one delirious gallery to this theme. Murakami’s giant painting “Kawaii–Vacances (Summer Vacation in the Kingdom of the Golden)” fills a wall, happy flowers smiling against a gold leaf ground. The artist’s flower lamps hang from the ceiling; another flower-patterned design carpets the floor.
Two older paintings bracket the sunny scene. The flowers in “Poppies,” Tawaraya Sotatsu’s 17th-century pair of six-panel screens, don’t have smiley faces like Murakami’s, but they open right at us like smiles. The 19th-century “Flower Carts,” sets a single cart brimming with blossoms in an indeterminate golden space, between a rivulet and a cloudbank.
For all the sunniness, this show does contend with darkness, particularly in a section devoted to religiosity. Murakami believes religious iconography must evolve with society, so he created his own Buddha. He took inspiration from the MFA’s thousand-year-old “Shaka, the Historical Buddha.”
It isn’t the figure Murakami reprises, but the lotuses around the sculpture’s base. They circle the artist’s “Oval Buddha Silver,” a solid silver sculpture of a squeaky cartoon character with an oversized head and a small, froggy body. He’s two-faced: sleepy and pouty on one side, fanged and ferocious on the other.
How’s that for a reflection of today’s society? Nodding off, feral, but super cute.
A few years ago, a Japanese art magazine invited Tsuji to write essays about his eccentric artists and Murakami to respond with a work of art.
Shohaku’s “Dragon and Clouds,” a marvelous, expansive eight-panel ink-on-paper piece in the MFA’s collection, was the focus of one of those dialogues. It’s on view: A forlorn dragon, eyes crossed, tail looping, lurks among great tonal passages of ink wash.
Murakami calls his painting, “Dragon in Clouds — Red Mutation: The version I painted myself in annoyance after Professor Tsuji told me, ‘Why don’t you paint something yourself for once?’ ”
You see, Murakami has a legion of assistants. He’s a master designer directing a team of artisans, another tradition in Japanese art. This, he painted on his own. It’s nearly 60 feet across — almost twice the length of Shohaku’s drawing — and he did it in 24 hours.
Murakami’s dragon, like Shohaku’s, is wide-eyed and baffled, more sweet than dangerous. Its tail roams. The cloud spirals psychedelically above its head. And in great, drippy passages, red infuses the surface. It’s a brilliant painting, comic, sweet, and engulfing.
These antic and pungent works, old and new, reveal a different Japan from the trademark traditional landscapes and monkish allegories. Murakami, heir to a lusty line, channels pathos and fury through the fantastic and the cornball. It’s a whirlwind of fresh air.
TAKASHI MURAKAMI: LINEAGE OF ECCENTRICS
At Museum of Fine Arts, 465 Huntington Ave., through April 1. 617-267-9300, www.mfa.orgCate McQuaid can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @cmcq.