In 1988, in the last year of his life, Japanese American artist, Isamu Noguchi, remarked “Art for me is something which teaches human beings how to become more human”.
Having just visited the Barbican Centre’s Noguchi show, I can see to what extent art was therapeutic for him. In his sculptures he seems to have found solace and his compassion for human suffering shines through. Making my way through the rooms, I was struck by how much emotion he was able to convey in his abstract forms. But to describe Noguchi as abstract is too reductive.
Noguchi learnt his trade with the master sculptor Constantin Brancusi. In 1927, in Brancusi’s Paris studio, Noguchi learnt the value of craftsmanship and developed a style which was both modern and lyrically expressive.
Each room in the show is theme-based rather than strictly chronological. I have often been driven mad by such methods at exhibitions (I am a stickler for chronology) – and Barbican had gone the whole hog by withdrawing information labels around the exhibits too.
We were however given a Noguchi booklet which contained a short biography and explanation to each room. An illustration of each exhibit catalogued what we were seeing with dates and titles.
In short, the creator of the show had withdrawn any extraneous material that might ruin the aesthetics of the show. It certainly cleared up the space around the sculptures and meant that visitors spent more time poring over the exhibits. That said, I would advise reading up about Noguchi’s life and work beforehand.
In Room 1, elegant foetal or amoebic sculptures in brass lit up the space. My eye was then drawn to a totem pole of what appeared to be locked bones, poetically titled Endless Coupling 1957. In room 3, two conjoined golden gourds Mitosis 1962, one larger than the other, split apart.
The theme of the beginnings of life, of procreation and growth ceased in room 7. In Skin and Bones the sculptures in stone and wood and plastic piece were made up of many parts. Skeletons were dismantled and bones reconfigured and interlocked in unusual ways. Noguchi produced these works in the mid-forties towards the end of WW2. Remembrance, 1944 fashioned out of mahogany, reminded me of the children’s game Buckaroo, where different tools were precariously balanced to stop the donkey from bucking! Here it was the bones which balanced precariously.
The war theme reached its apogee in Room 8 Gravity. I was particularly struck by wood structure Cronos 1947. What resembles an upside-down nappy pin contains entrapped snaked forms trying to wriggle free. Noguchi drew on the tale of Cronos who swallowed his own children.
Noguchi’s artistic response to the darkness of the human condition was to create light – akari in Japanese. Noguchi’s akaris abound at the show. His lighting is spectacular. Lights of all shapes and sizes are fashioned out of wasabi paper and bamboo. In Room 1 an akari light which covers the ceiling. It looks contemporary. Noguchi designed it in 1965.
In his career spanning six decades, Noguchi was constantly reaching across the different artistic disciplines. The show displays the furniture he designed as far back as 1944 – a stylish coffee table with andromorphic limbs still adorns modern sitting rooms today.
The exhibition goes on to chart Noguchi ‘s journey into architecture. Noguchi loved to create sculptures for civic spaces. A short film shows him working on a large stone with a deep drill. To the end of his life Noguchi knew the importance of craftmanship and never forgot Brancusi’s horror of machine-made pieces of art with no soul (What would Brancusi have made of Noguchi’s mass-produced Coffee Table?)
Noguchi took immense pleasure from designing children’s playgrounds and gardens such as the UNESCO headquarters in Paris. For this project, large stones were transported all the way from Shikoku and Okayama in Japan. His work in theatre and dance earlier on his career must have prepared him for working on a large scale.
This is a heartening show. There is something so comforting and calming about Noguchi’s work – His sculptural forms are smooth, rounded, gentle to the touch, as if he has consciously ironed out any jagged edges or roughness in the world. We are left with an idea of his tremendous compassion for human suffering and his never-ending hope.
This may have contrasted with his own life. As a Japanese American, he suffered not only from his parents’ estrangement as a child, but also from the American prejudice against the Japanese during WW2. After the attack on Pearl Harbour in 1941, things got worse as Japanese living on US soil (those in the western US) were imprisoned in a camp. Noguchi was exempt as he was living in New York, however being socially minded, he voluntarily checked in a camp in Arizona where he tried to do some good. He created an arts programme for the interned. It shows a good heart.
This is a lovely show and if you go – remember to pick up your Noguchi guide at the entrance!
‘Noguchi’ can be seen at the Barbican Art Gallery, London and runs from the 30 September 2021 – 9 January 2022