Isamu Noguchi: 1904–88

Posted on April 9th, 2009 by Sian Jones

Noguchi was one of the most significant modern sculptors and garden makers of the 20th century.

He was moved by the spiritual simplicity of stones and garden making in Japan, and this was an enduring influence throughout his life and work.

On searching for the meaning of sculpture he said: “This I had found in the rocks of gardens as the essential projection of time. Trees pass, the rocks remain. Erode. How else may the enduring be manifest?”

Born in Los Angeles his upbringing was unusual and difficult as a result of being the illegitimate son of American authoress, Leonie Gilmour, and a celebrated Japanese poet. Leonie took him to Japan in 1907 where she found that his father had married a Japanese, starting another family.

In traditional Japan Noguchi was seen as an embarrassment and an outcast. His father rarely saw him and he was brought up by his mother in Japan. In 1918 he was sent to school in Indiana, USA and then moved to Columbia University in New York, where he trained as a sculptor. His sense of belonging to a place or culture was always tortured and he straddled the two countries never really being wholly part of one or the other.

While travelling around Europe in 1927 on a scholarship he became an assistant to Brancusi in Paris. This experience had a profound influence on his work. His piece ‘helix of the endless’ (right) makes direct reference to Brancusi. In 1930 he travelled to Peking where he spent seven months studying brush painting and finally returned to Japan the following year where he had a difficult reunion with his father. He was now a successful sculptor with a reputation for theatre sets, which he designed for Martha Graham in New York.

After WW2 he was welcomed in Japan and he began learning about Japanese garden making particularly the designs of the 14th-century Muso Soseki, whose most celebrated garden can be seen at the Moss Temple in Kyoto. In 1957 he returned again to Japan to look for stones for a new commission, the UNESCO garden in Paris. In Japan designers go ‘fishing’ for stones, an important process in garden making. This involves searching shorelines, mountain gullies, riverbeds and remote islands. It can take many months.

Noguchi took with him Mirei Shigemori, himself to become Japan’s most celebrated modern garden designer. Shigemori helped Noguchi to lay out the eighty stones from which fifty were selected and sent on to Marseille by ship. It was on this trip that Noguchi found the village of Mure, near Takamatsu on the island of Shikkoku, famous for the carving of the fine hard granites from local quarries.

The making of the garden in Paris, completed in 1959, was a traumatic and difficult process. The design kept changing. The Japanese workers refused to place the rocks where Noguchi wanted them; he offended their traditions. Reaction to the finished garden was mixed as the Japanese considered it not to be authentic and Europeans found it rather austere. At the time Noguchi suggested that it would be better appreciated in 25 years when the trees had grown and matured. Despite these initial reactions it has been extremely influential and marked a new direction in landscape design, harmonising architecture, sculpture and horticulture with both Western and Eastern influences.

Charmed with Mure and the possibilities of working with Japanese masons brought Noguchi back in 1966. He mentored Masatoshi Izumi, mouththe younger son of the owner of the largest stonecutting factory. Because of the success of their collaboration Noguchi decided to establish a studio in 1969 where they completed the first of an ongoing series of large-scale basalt sculptures.

Izumi worked from Noguchi’s small maquettes producing larger sculptures using both local and imported stone. As the studio expanded Noguchi came to the island frequently to inspect work and make suggestions on how to proceed. Mechanical stonecutters were rejected for traditional techniques and Izumi would chisel out the design and have the stone hand polished giving a more subtle finish.

When Noguchi was in Mure he would work alongside his masons in the ‘stone circle’. They were dazzled by his technique and speed of execution considering it a privilege to follow the master. The circle (above) was his workshop, a 1300m2 open-air yard. It is surrounded by a beautiful metre high stone wall resembling retaining walls on a river dyke. The borrowed landscape and setting add to the spiritual qualities of this particular work place which is in contrast to the other factories nearby.

Noguchi said: “stone is directly linked to the core of the matter. It is a molecular conglomeration… If you strike a stone it echoes back with the spirit of existence within us. It is the echo of the whole universe.”

Noguchi’s house at Mure was an old merchant’s house due to be torn down for road improvement. It was moved, reassembled and restored to its original design to enable him live on site, when he came each autumn and spring. In 1983 he began to create a garden. It appeared simple: a persimmon tree, which blossomed in autumn, standing within a bamboo grove in front of a rough-hewn rock wall. Six long, narrow pieces of local stone, as if sunk into the ground, were arranged in a gently sinuous row across the lawn.

The hillside behind the stone circle is an extension of this garden. From here there is a view of the Inland Sea and on it a sculpture created by Isumi into which some of Noguchi’s ashes were placed into a small concealed hole in the middle.

Kristina Taylor

The house, sculpting circle and gardens are now preserved as a museum. It is one of the most spiritual and uplifting modern landscapes in Japan. It can be visited this autumn: www.japanesegardentours.com or contact Kristina Taylor: whitejasmine@talktalk.net The major exhibition of works by Noguchi (including the helix) continues at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park until 4 May and is unlikely to be repeated. Works large and small fill both the gardens and new underground gallery. It will be followed by another major retrospective on British artist Peter Randall-Page, opening on 27 June.


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