Kokoro: The Art of Horiyoshi III, at Somerset House

At Somerset House in London there is currently an exhibition called Kokoro: The Art of Horiyoshi III. The exhibition is on until 1st July, and is free to enter.

‘Kokoro’ means ‘heart’ in Japanese; it’s the ‘feeling’, the ‘inner meaning’ that underpins the Japanese approach, not only to art, but to Japanese life as a whole. It is what makes Japan quintessentially Japanese.

With this selection of paintings by Irezumi master Horiyoshi III and photographs by Alex ‘Kofuu’ Reinke and Matti ‘Senju’ Sedholm, you are invited to experience Kokoro and take a journey through stylised Japanese depictions of nature and enter a world of myths and legends.

Internationally renowned tattoo artist Horiyoshi III is a great supporter of traditional japanese culture, history and craftsmanship and yet he has embraced the modern Western world, evolved his art and absorbed it into his practice; this is ultimately the power and essence of Kokoro. It is a spirit that knows no time or physical limits. (Words from literature available at the exhibition.)

Without really knowing anything about the art of Horiyoshi III, I visited the exhibition and found it quite interesting. Most of the pictures on display are pretty gruesome, but also very beautiful.

Kokoro: The Art of Horiyoshi III

As some of you will know, I have a bit of a thing for yokai (Japanese monsters), so I found pieces like this of particular interest:

Kokoro: The Art of Horiyoshi III

Namakubi; scroll 179cm x 46cm; mineral pigment on silk

I was also quite taken with the little figurines on display in the centre of one of the galleries:

Kokoro: The Art of Horiyoshi III

Horiyoshi III has taken the venerable Japanese tattoo tradition to new heights as its leading figure in modern times. Imbued with a profound knowledge of philosophy, aesthetics, and art history, his works on silk and paper continue the great arc of Asian culture. Horiyoshi’s global influence and inspiration are immeasurable.” Ed Hardy, San Francisco

Kokoro: The Art of Horiyoshi III

Just as I was going to publish this post, I came across a recent AFP article about Horiyoshi III which proved to be an interesting read. The article talks about the link between tattoos and yakuza (gangsters) in Japan, and how some people think this connection is unfair. Last month in Tokyo, Horiyoshi had an exhibition of his work with live subjects (I would have liked to have seen that!).

Unlike those popular in the West, tattoos in Japan have their own narrative and do not borrow from other cultures (AFP/File, Toru Yamanaka)

(Image source)

According to the article, Horiyoshi III has said that he is inspired by artists such as Katsushika Hokusai and Utagawa Kuniyoshi (both great ukiyo-e artists). Horiyoshi’s works (whether on paper, silk, or skin) depict legends and myths, and have their own narratives. Horiyoshi’s apprentice, Alexander Reinke, says “The – often badly-rendered – Chinese or Sanskrit characters that adorn bodies in London or New York would not be found in Japan. The biggest difference is that tattoos in the West are created to underline a person’s individuality… But in Japan some groups get tattoos not to underline their individuality because individuality is not so important in Japan, it’s the group that is important”.

In Japan, people with tattoos are often thought of as “trouble”, and you will most likely be refused entry to a gym or public bath if you have visible tattoos. The mayor of Osaka recently forced city employees to reveal whether or not they had tattoos.

It seems, the article concludes, that the idea of “tattoos = yakuza” in Japan cannot be forgotten, and that this makes people scared of tattoos. Still, this isn’t stopping Horiyoshi from making his art, which I personally think is quite beautiful.

If you happen to be in London and have even the mildest curiosity, I recommend checking out the exhibition at Somerset House. For more information, please click here.

On 23rd June there will be a free modern-style taiko drumming performance by Kumiko Suzuki to celebrate the exhibition. The performance will be at 15.30 at The Edmond J. Safra Fountain Court (that’s the  main big space in front of Somerset House).

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