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Indepth Arts News:

"Masterpieces of Japanese Art from the Mary Griggs Burke Collection"
2000-03-28 until 2000-06-25
Metropolitan Museum of Art
New York, NY, USA United States of America

The Metropolitan Museum of Art will present an unprecedented exhibition of Japanese art drawn from the renowned Mary Griggs Burke Collection, the largest and most encompassing private collection of Japanese art outside Japan, beginning March 28. Bringing together some 200 masterpieces including paintings, sculpture, ceramics, calligraphy, lacquerware, and ukiyo-e prints Masterpieces of Japanese Art from the Mary Griggs Burke Collection will reveal the remarkable range and quality of Mrs. Burke's activities as a collector over the past 37 years.

Organized chronologically from the earliest Japanese cultures of around 3000 B.C. to the Edo period (1615-1868) the exhibition will provide an overview of the development of Japanese art as well as explore the use of divergent artistic traditions, including those adapted from other cultures and those that reflect native Japanese tastes. This is the first major exhibition of Japanese art at the Metropolitan Museum since 1975. Many works in the exhibition, including the luminous, early-17th-century screen, Women Contemplating Floating Fans, have never before been seen by the public.

The collection of Mary Griggs Burke has long been recognized as one of the finest assemblages of Japanese art in private hands, commented Philippe de Montebello, Director of the Metropolitan Museum. It is the only American collection ever to be shown at the Tokyo National Museum, a testament to Mrs. Burke's sensitivity to and appreciation of Japanese aesthetics. From the astonishing early ceramics to painted 17th-century ukiyo-e evocations of urban life, these works span vividly the remarkable history of one of the world's great cultures.

Early Works
A ceramic vessel from the middle Jomon period (ca. 2500-1500 B.C.) with a flamboyant rim and decorative markings made by impressing parts of a rope into the clay body opens the exhibition. Other early ceramics include a Haniwa Figure of a Young Woman with a Large Chignon and a barrel-shaped bottle (yokobe), both from the sixth century.

Ties to China and Korea are most evident in the introduction of Buddhism to Japan from the Korean kingdom of Paekche in 538. Building temples and commissioning painting and sculptures were important activities for the members of the imperial family and other privileged individuals during the Nara (710-784), Heian (794-1185), and Kamakura (1185-1333) periods.

Highlights in the exhibition include several sculptures created using the yosegi or joined-wood technique, such as an image of Bishamonten, the guardian of the North, and that of Fudo, a fierce protector. A representation of the Bodhisattva Jizo is the work of Kaikei (active 1185-1223), a member of the prominent Kei school noted for his tempering of the powerful realism of the Kamakura period with the courtly elegance of an earlier style. The blending of the imported religion of Buddhism with such older native traditions as Shinto is illustrated by rare examples of male and female Shinto gods from the 10th century, and an evocative 14th-century moonlit landscape housing the Shinto Kasuga shrine in Nara.

In the ninth century, the creation of the kana script which abbreviates selected Chinese characters to represent syllables in Japanese led to a flowering of literature, painting, and calligraphy that reflected native interests and aesthetics. Examples such as the 14th-century Painting Competition and the contemporaneous Portrait of Fujiwara Teika (1162-1241) illustrate the importance of poets and their oeuvres. Famous collaborative works, such as One Hundred Poems by One Hundred Poets, Selected at Mount Ogura, for which Hon'ami Koetsu (1558-1637) wrote the calligraphy and Tawaraya Sotatsu (died ca. 1640) designed the writing paper, continue this tradition. The Japanese genius for dramatic narratives is exemplified by 17th- and 18th-century album leaves, handscrolls, folding screens, and a lacquer box depicting scenes from the Tale of Genji often considered the world's first novel written by Lady Murasaki Shikibu around 1000.

Introduced from China in the 13th century, Zen Buddhism brought the concept and technique of ink painting to Japan. At first used exclusively in temples associated with this branch of the religion, ink paintings and Zen themes soon moved to the secular world. Recently acquired, a charmingly painted handscroll depicting the Ten Oxherding Songs, and dated 1278, provides an early example of this Zen theme in which the actions of the young herdsman and the powerful ox he tends serve as metaphors for the quest for enlightenment.

14th-18th Century
An area of particular strength within the collection, Muromachi-period (1391-1573) ink paintings include the diptych Orchids by Bonpo and a depiction of the Chinese Zen masters Bukan, Kanzan, and Jittoku by Reisai, both active in the 15th century. Sesson Shukei, a master of the 16th century, is represented by two landscapes and by the Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove, a parody of a traditional Chinese theme of individualism and eremetism that resonated in Zen circles.

The bold graphic forms of the green willows and gold bridges in the 16th-century Willows and Bridges exemplify the taste of the ruling elite during the short-lived Momoyama period (1573-1615). This pair of folding screens is often thought to represent the bridge over the Uji River, in southeast Kyoto, a famous Japanese site celebrated in Japanese literature as early as the eighth century. Powerful, simplified designs and striking contrasts in shape and color are also evident in the seven examples of lacquer in the Kodaiji style, such as the set of shelves decorated with a grapevine motif. Named after the small Kodaiji, built as a mortuary temple by the widow of the powerful warlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi, lacquers in this style illustrate a novel and simplified use of the Japanese maki-e technique, in which designs are created by sprinkling pieces of gold onto a black lacquer background. The vibrant presence and tactile surfaces of ceramics produced for use in the tea ceremony, first codified in the 16th century, also illustrate the aesthetics of this period. Extraordinary examples include a water jar from the Iga kilns, a black Seto tea bowl, and a white Shino example sketchily painted with a design of a bridge and a house.

A comparison between two pairs of screens depicting cranes one by Ishida Yutei (1721-1780) and the other by Nagasawa Rosetsu (1754-1799) attests to the liveliness and diversity that characterize Japanese art during the prosperous and stable Edo period. Set against a gold background, Yutei's cranes are drawn with clean black outlines and painted in shades of white, black, and gray, with touches of color around the heads. Rosetsu's birds, on the other hand, are created with bold, black slashes of ink placed against empty areas of white paper. The use of this technique, and the somewhat eccentric personalities of the birds, explain his position as one of the three great individualist masters of 18th-century painting, along with Ito Jakuchu (1716-1800) and Soga Shohaku (1730-1781), who are also represented in the exhibition.

The development of the Nanga School provides another example of the Japanese openness to new themes, techniques, and ways of seeing during the Edo period. Artists in this school based their work on the art of Chinese literati masters who painted as an act of self-cultivation and self-expression. Ike Taiga's (1723-1776) Gathering at the Orchard Pavilion a depiction of a famous Chinese poetry party said to have been held on March 3, 353 will pay homage to this tradition while illustrating a distinctly Japanese flavor in its narrative quality, abundant use of pastel colors, and dense, decorative brushwork.

A recently acquired, six-fold screen entitled Women Contemplating Floating Fans provides a rare and important example of the rise of genre painting in the late 16th and early 17th century. Eighteen stately women and their four young attendants stand or sit along the railings of a bridge casting their fans into the water and watching them float away, a possible reference to the tradition of discarding used fans at the end of each summer. The women's simple hairstyles and the stripes and small patterns in their clothing help date the painting to the early 17th century. The elaborate hairstyle and brilliant designs on the robe of the late-17th-century Kanbun Beauty, on the other hand, illustrates changes in fashion during this period. This painting belongs to the tradition known as ukiyo-e, or images of the floating world, which celebrates the pleasures and cultural heroes of urban dwellers in Edo (present-day Tokyo) and Kyoto. Paintings of this genre were among the first objects acquired by Mrs. Burke and her late husband Jackson Burke when they began collecting seriously in 1963 the start of their journey through Japanese history, culture, and art that will be recorded in this exhibition.

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