Professor Bert Winther-Tamaki Shines a Light on Japanese Art

By Yanit Mehta

Photo Courtesy of MoMA

There are only a few people left in the world whose faces light up with a playful, childlike glee when talking about the revolutionary introduction of oil paints or an exhibit of curated Japanese art. Professor Bert Winther-Tamaki is one of them.

Professor Winther-Tamaki is one of the world’s foremost scholars of Japanese art. When asked “Why Japan?” his answer is just as honest and unadulterated as the man answering it. Being from Pennsylvania, Winther-Tamaki  had little personal connection to Japan. He grew up in a Western country and went to a Western school and wasn’t exposed to Japan or its enchanting culture for the most part. However, while attending the University of Pennsylvania, he had to pick a language to study. Unlike today’s technologically advanced world, in the late 1970s to early 1980s, registration was still done on paper. So, when he faced the decision of picking a new language, he left it purely up to chance. He closed his eyes and randomly placed his finger on the giant catalogue of classes. His finger landed on Japanese, and the rest is history. If his finger had been even half a centimeter off, he would’ve been studying the Indonesian language of Javanese, and the course of his life would have completely changed.

Winther-Tamaki has come a long way since  that day. He has now written three spectacularly insightful books that showcase different facets of Japanese art. The first one, published in 2001, is called “Art in the Encounter of Nations,” which as the back of the book mentions, “is the first book-length study of interactions between the Japanese and American art worlds in the early postwar years.” He combines his knowledge of his home country and the country he has researched for years to deliver a detailed and structured book in a way that only he can. He begins the book by inspecting the influences of American abstract expressionism in the work of Japanese artists.  Investigating and examining four abstract painters who moved to the United States of America, after which he discusses two young scions of the calligraphy and pottery worlds of Japan. He then closes the final chapter with Japanese American sculptor and designer Isamu Noguchi.

Winther-Tamaki is particularly a big fan of Isamu Noguchi. Noguchi is the focus of his second book, “Isamu Noguchi and Modern Japanese Ceramics: A Close Embrace of the Earth,” which he co-wrote with Louise Allison Cort, and published in 2003. Winther-Tamaki is bothered by the elementary denouncing of the earth  as dirt and something that needs to be washed away. He wanted to explore the importance of Earth and its momentousness to human survival. This is exactly why he is so taken by Noguchi’s work; Noguchi is known particularly for his stone and bronze sculptures. However, Winther-Tamaki also writes about Noguchi’s spell-binding yet under-appreciated work in clay, which he finished over three exhaustive sessions in 1931, 1950 and 1952, all over visits to Japan.

In 2012, Winther-Tamaki decided to use the medium of “oil-on-canvas” in his third book on Japanese art, “Maximum Embodiment: Yōga, the Western Painting of Japan, 1912-1955.” Yōga here doesn’t refer to the ancient Indian discipline of meditation, but in fact, it literally means “Western painting” of Japan. Oil-on-canvas was significantly different and alien in earlier Japanese paintings because most artists used water-based pigments and inks. The term Yōga as defined in his book “designates what was arguably the most important movement in modern Japanese art from the late nineteenth to the mid-twentieth centuries.” This book takes on several unanswered questions about Yōga and, with Winther-Tamaki’s insurmountable knowledge on the subject matter, answers them “by defining a paradigm of embodied representation unique to Yōga painting that may be conceptualized in four registers: first, the distinctive materiality of oil paint pigments on the picture surface; second, the depiction of palpable human bodies; third, the identification of the act and product of painting with a somatic expression of the artist’s physical being; and finally, rhetorical metaphors of political and social incorporation.”

After having recently spent a year in Kyoto, his love for Japan and its art is  unwavering, and he is likely to to further revolutionize the way people think about Japanese art. As an educator at UCI, he continues to translate and pass down the knowledge of the Land of the Rising Sun for students here in America.