Saturday, 15 March 2014

Shigemori Mirei, A Modern Master



Shigemori Mirei is becoming more widely regarded as one of the great garden creators of the 20th century. His chequer-board design of stone and moss rectangles at the rear of the Abbots Hall, Tofuku-ji temple in Kyoto features in nearly every contemporary book on Japanese garden design. Its conception is both simple and yet visually beguiling. Born in 1896, he came relatively late to garden design, though he had observed both his father and grandfather involved in creating gardens. Mirei was born in the small village of Yoshikawa, near Okayama City, and his initial aim was to study flower arrangement (ikebana), painting and philosophy. In 1917 he moved to Tokyo to study art at Tokyo University, and in 1923 he moved back to his hometown, and this is where his path as a garden creator begins.
Tofuku-ji Hojo garden
“My goal is to create a modern garden, not by replicating traditional gardens of old times,  but by studying carefully and learning from them.”
The garden at Zuiho-in, Kyoto. This superb arrangement shows Mirei's grasp of composition that drew on his study of flower arrangement.
In 1929 he decided that he wanted to move back to Tokyo together with his wife and two sons. Reaching Kyoto they decided to break their journey, and eventually settled in the ancient capital city. In 1935 he began to undertake a major survey of historic gardens across Japan. He surveyed, sketched and researched the temple records of nearly 250 gardens, it was the first time this had been done. Eventually his efforts were rewarded in the publication of 26 volumes of his ground breaking research (‘Nihon Teinshi Zukan’, ‘Illustrated Book on the History of the Japanese Garden’).
The central section of the arrangement at the Mirei Garden Museum, his home in Kyoto for many years.
The interior of the tea house design by Mirei, shows both the chequerboard design and the wave form. Two motifs scattered through his garden work. Mirei Garden Museum, Kyoto.

In 1939 Shigemori Mirei was given his first important commission, the building of the gardens at Tofuku-ji temple’s Abbots Quarters. Mirei’s philosophy regarding garden design was rooted in an appreciation of the depth of Japanese culture, to this he introduced modernistic themes and motifs drawn from abstract art. Mirei absorbed a deep appreciation of Japanese culture from his study of ikebana, tea ceremony and painting, and to this he brought a desire to infuse core Japanese spiritual values with a contemporary looking vision. At a time when many Japanese artists were rejecting traditional values and looking to the West for inspiration, Mirei infused his work with values from both cultural sources. He did not see the past as a burden but a well-spring to root his work in a cultural matrix, then from that platform apply an undeniable modernity. In that he is a model for garden creators of all cultures looking to infuse there work with a profound depth of expression.

Rock arrangement at Matsuo  Taisha Shrine
In his rock arrangements Mirei favoured a strong vertical line allied to powerful dynamic tensions between the individual elements of an arrangement. This allied to a superb eye to select interesting stones resulted in visually exciting arrangements. If one were to venture a criticism of some of his work then it would be to point towards the sheer number of stones he liked to employ. It can have the effect of diluting the impact of his stone arrangements through repetition. In his final work at Matsuo Taisha shrine, near Arashiyama, Mirei created one of his most profound arrangements. The stone groups rising up the hillside through a sea of Sasa bamboo, is both profoundly modern and yet evokes a primordial power. Here the stones exude an ancient feeling, a solidity and connectivity with the earth whilst managing to lift the spirit of the viewer towards the sky. It is the work of a true master, one whom through sheer application transcends his art.

Another characteristic of Mirei's work is the use of sinuous lines that allow the eye of the viewer to be guided through a composition.
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