Takashi Murakami Synthesizes Old and New at the MFA

December 31, 2017 | By Xandie Kuenning

At first glance, Takashi Murakami’s newest exhibition, “Takashi Murakami: Lineage of Eccentrics,” at the Museum of Fine Arts seems, like many of today’s arts exhibitions, intended for the Instagram age. 


Full of floor-to-ceiling, brightly-colored paintings, the exhibit is irresistible to any phone-carrying visitor. Even before entering the museum, visitors are greeted by a photo opportunity with a field of smiling flowers that capture the playfulness of Murakami’s work. However, as a collaboration with the Japanese art historian Nobuo Tsuji, the art’s significance runs deeper than the silliness seen upon first glance. 


Photos by Xandie Kuenning

The title, “Lineage of Eccentrics,” comes from one of Tsuji’s books, a work that influenced Murakami when he was first breaking into the art industry. The eccentrics, or kisō in Japanese, mentioned in the book has long appeared in Japanese art work, yet, according to Tsuji in a video produced by the MFA, this is the first time it has been truly recognized and appreciated, Murakami’s work acting to revive the topic.


“Neither Japanese or American people have seen the connection between traditional Japanese art and contemporary art until now,” Tsuji said. Murakami, in the same video, followed this with his own statement about his work “to make a bridge with completely traditional, big-history things, and postwar Japanese subculture things to export to the Western world.”


Photos by Xandie Kuenning

To make these connections apparent, Tsuji and Anne Nishimura Morse, the William and Helen Pounds Senior Curator of Japanese Art at the MFA, pulled together a collection of traditional Japanese art that Murakami used to influence his own modern work. Some of Murakami’s work was simply inspired by thematic elements found in this traditional art, such as that of monsters. In the large painting “Lots, Lots of Kaikai and Kiki,” Murakami applied a cartoon look of cuteness to his two monsters to create a playful mural of overlapping characters. 


In other cases, Murakami effectively copied a particular piece of traditional art, such as with “Dragon in Clouds – Red Mutation.” Murakami created this piece, based on one of a similar name dating from 1763, in a day-and-a-half, after Tsuji challenged Murakami to create his own painting rather than relying on his studio to do the work. 


The real delight of this exhibit comes from Murakami’s ability to make  traditional art more approachable to an everyday audience. Though people may come for the pop art and Instagram pictures, they will leave with a greater understanding of Japanese art, both old and new.


“Takashi Murakami: Lineage of Eccentrics” will be on view until April 1, 2018.