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'A painting is a poem without words'

While there is in Japan a powerful current of modern art, traditional painting with its exotic overtones is still very much alive, especially in the studio of the master Yamaguchi Kayo at Kyoto.

Lineal descendant of the talented genre painters of that fabulous city, Yamaguchi continues their techniques in the difficult art of painting animals, birds, and flowers, while embracing something new, a beautiful expression of Japanese civilization.

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Yamaguchi creates art whose simplicity is only apparent. An exquisite Oriental sensitivity adds subtle nuances to a remarkably sharp attentive observation. Realism and a fine decorative sense alternate, in turn opposing or mingling. Discreetly suggested are quiverings of life, reminiscences of legends, and always poetry.

His pictures are meant neither to attract the eye too much nor overly distract the mind but rather to incite the imagination. The colors are applied in washes or in opaque patterns on special Japanese paper; thus the paintings are as fragile as they are precious.

Delicate, soft strokes produce images of such tactile evocativeness that we want to touch the surfaces. The backgrounds, usually variegated but seldom specific, give to the figure the intensity of a splendid apparition, seen by a light casting no shadow in a strange solitude.

In ''Waiting'' the artist uses a perspective novel to the West although quite customary to Japanese traditionalists. He paints as if from above; the lion seems to slide downward and forward. In this way he presents a composite view, a frontal aspect plus an eloquent rendition of the powerful lithe body.

Both shape and attitude are functional; they communicate a quickened sense of life, an alert force capable of immediate swift movement. Yamaguchi, to accomplish this, had to learn the lion's physical structure and then penetrate into its essence, its fundamental nature.

As for ''White Herons,'' we must speak of their gracefulness. Nature and a great artist fashioned this marvelous composition out of five large white birds with long necks ending in pointed beaks, having huge wings and spindly legs above thin toes splaying out for balance. Without doubt, he arranged this from many prior studies; birds do not hold poses. Arabesques of lines and volumes suggest weightless masses developing rhythmic curves in an enigmatic space. These herons make our hearts rejoice.

''Camellia in the Spring'' emphasizes how, when that special season arrives, flowers burst open in glory. The blossoms hold out their chalice cups, the petals reaching forth. Everybody knows flowers are ephemeral; soon only a beautiful memory will remain. A branch of a bush suffices for the artist to indicate the entire cycle of nature.

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In Japan a delightful custom is still followed: An inspired beholder of a tree in bloom will write a poem, probably a haiku (limited to 17 syllables), fasten it to a twig, and leave it there - a real billet-doux.

Since 1914 the work of Yamaguchi Kayo has been featured in important Japanese exhibitions. Among the honors granted him should be counted appointments to teach at academies of the highest national standing. Well into his 80s he still paints. Several just finished masterpieces are included in a recent Paris show.

Yamaguchi's lovely pictures are among those most appreciated by his contemplative and poetic countrymen. An old Japanese proverb explains why: A poem is a painting with words A painting is a poem without words.

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