The British Museum keeps its permanent collection of Japanese art in rooms 92-94, up on the fifth floor at the back (access via the North stairs). It’s permanent in the sense that it’s not a limited-time special exhibition, but it’s not set in stone; it changes slowly, particularly with the passing of the seasons, so it’s always worth going back to see the latest offering. My friend Yannick, who works there as a volunteer tour guide, tips me off when there’s something new, and he’s the one who told me about the Tetsuya Noda exhibition.
Noda started working on his on-going series of prints, Diary, in the nineteen-sixties, documenting his family life, everyday objects and scenes from his travels. Over the past fifty years he’s produced five hundred works, of which twenty-two are on show at the British Museum. They take up the whole of room 94, about a quarter of the available display area, so Noda is being treated pretty seriously.
Noda uses an unusual technique, combining colour woodblock with photo silkscreen. He prints areas of colour and shades of white background onto handmade Japanese paper using woodblocks. Then, carefully altered photographic images are printed over the colours using silkscreen.
Noda calls the camera his sketchbook and his everyday subjects are reminiscent of traditional Japanese ukiyo-e prints, with their observation of everyday-life, frankness and absence of ostentation.
But, if you’ve been looking at the photos so far, you’ll have spotted a bit of an issue. Noda’s prints are very subtle, both in subject and in colour, and reaching them after walking through a gallery of the greatest art Japan has produced over thousands of years is something of an anticlimax.
If I’d seen this work in a commercial gallery, particularly one of the more experimental ones in Hoxton or Shoreditch, I’d have felt quite at home with it. In the British Museum I was confused.
I couldn’t see why the Noda prints were being treated in this way, with so much of the British Museum’s limited Japanese gallery’s precious space devoted to them, when there is so much more they could be showing us. For instance, I would love to have seen more ceramics, like this modern flame pot by Hitomi Hosono, which takes the amazing Jomon period flame pots to a new level. (on show in room 92).
The Noda exhibition continues until 5 October in Room 94. Entry to the British Museum is free and they’re open late on Friday nights.