Celebrating Childhood at the Chihiro Art Museum

April 22, 2017

Post by Mari Boyle, Tokyo.

On a cloudy Saturday in April, I joined SCBWI Japan members to make a visit to the Chihiro Art Museum Tokyo. The museum is dedicated to the work of Chihiro Iwasaki, award-winning Japanese children’s illustrator and artist, whose work is still widely celebrated some forty years after her death. The museum is tucked into a quiet residential area of Tokyo, built on the site of her family home. 

We were met in the foyer by Yoko Nakahiro, senior associate of the Chihiro Iwasaki Memorial Foundation, who kindly guided us around the museum. Yoko spoke enthusiastically about Chihiro’s life and work, and her impact on Japanese picture book illustration and art. Having lived through the Pacific War, (Second World War), Chihiro dedicated her talents as an artist to the theme of “peace and happiness for children”. Though she died at the age of 55, she sketched and painted some 9,400 pieces, seemingly never tiring of painting children and babies. As we wandered through the peaceful museum, past her beautifully recreated garden and workroom, I was struck by how familiar Chihiro’s work was to me. Her prints and books seem to be ever present in doctors’ offices, Japanese kindergarten, and preschool bookshelves, among other places, such is the popularity of her work. 

Chihiro_Yoko Nakhira

SCBWI members with Yoko Nakahira, senior associate of the Chihiro Iwasaki Memorial Foundation.

Yet seeing her paintings in the museum brought a new appreciation of her skills. Chihiro combined traditional Japanese ink painting with Western watercolor styles, frequently using the white space in her work to invite the observer to fill up the canvas with their own imagination. Yoko mentioned that when Chihiro’s work was exhibited at the Norman Rockwell Museum, (Stockbridge, MA, 1996), some viewers felt her work looked "unfinished" precisely because of the unpainted backgrounds. Yet Chihiro had the ability to turn what is often regarded as negative space into a focal point by highlighting a single color.

 

We also had the opportunity to view two temporary exhibitions, "My Hans Christian Andersen" and Ib Spang Olsen’s, “The Soul of Denmark”. These shows are part of the museum's 40th-anniversary celebrations and the commemoration of the 150th Anniversary of Japan-Denmark Diplomatic Relations. While many Japanese might be reminded of their childhood specifically through Chihiro’s work, the Andersen exhibition reminded me of mine. It was a joy to see Chihiro’s interpretations of many of my favorite Andersen stories alongside the works of artists from around the world. 

A further gallery displayed the work of Ib Spang Olsen, a Danish painter and illustrator, and recipient of the international Hans Christian Andersen Medal in 1972. Some of his books have been translated into Japanese and his style is somewhat quirkier and bolder, reflecting a different sense of childhood to Chihiro’s. Diverse cultural interpretations of childhood seemed to connect all the exhibitions. 

It was certainly a pleasant way to spend a cloudy Saturday in April, in the company of my fellow SCBWI friends, and I highly recommend that anyone visit, regardless of the weather. 

For further information about the museum go to the website: http://www.chihiro.jp/global/en/museum/index.html

Storytime, gallery talks, and even music concerts all help to make this Tokyo museum a special place for the young at heart.