Asian Art – Art & Antiques Magazine For Collectors of the Fine and Decorative Arts Tue, 09 Jul 2019 01:51:43 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Asian Art – Art & Antiques Magazine 32 32 Birds and Beasts Tue, 25 Jun 2019 04:02:36 +0000 Continue reading ]]> Japanese artists have lavished loving attention of the animal kingdom for almost two millennia, as visitors to the National Gallery in Washington, D.C., can now see for themselves.

Yamamoto Kozan, Rabbit-Shaped Censer

Yamamoto Kozan, Rabbit-Shaped Censer, Showa period, circa 1935, white bronze, 8.9 x 12.7 x 7.6 cm.

Featured Images:(Click to Enlarge) Sacred Foxes, Kamakura–Nanbokucho periods Yamamoto Kozan, Rabbit- Shaped Censer Kaigyokusai Masatsugu, The Twelve Zodiac Animals Nawa Kohei, PixCell-Bambi #14 Helmet Shaped like a Shachihoko, Edo period

This summer, monkeys, frogs, cats, fish, octopuses, and flocks of birds invade the halls of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. No, it’s not an exchange program with the Smithsonian’s National Zoo, it’s an art exhibition, and the animals aren’t in cages; they’re in frames, on pedestals, on ceramics and enameled boxes, woven into garments, and, as Gilbert and Sullivan put it, “on many a screen and fan.” “The Life of Animals in Japanese Art” (through August 18) is a massive loan show featuring more than 300 works that portray wild and domestic creatures, spanning 17 centuries of Japanese visual culture.

Co-organized with the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Japan Foundation, with special cooperation from the Tokyo National Museum, the exhibition features 180 works lent from Japan, many of which hardly ever leave Japan, or, indeed, never have until now. The largest single lender is the Tokyo National Museum, which lent 26 works. The National Gallery’s installation takes up 18,000 square feet in the East Building Concourse; from September 22 through December 8, a smaller version of the show, titled “Every Living Thing: Animal in Japanese Art” will be on view at LACMA. Both shows are curated by Robert T. Singer, curator and department head of Japanese art at LACMA, and Masatomo Kawai, director of the Chiba City Museum of Art, in consultation with a team of historians of Japanese Art. A voluminous, fully illustrated catalogue, published by Princeton University Press, accompanies the exhibition.

The dense presence of animals in Japanese art is due to several factors. The ancient Shinto religion saw the spirits or deities (kami) as being embedded in nature, and therefore as being intimate with the animal kingdom. For example, deer were considered to be messengers of kami, or were even used iconographically as representations of kami, as in a 15th-century Kasuga Deer Mandala on loan to the exhibition from the Art Institute of Chicago. In a woodblock print by Hiroshige, from a much later period (1857), fox spirits are depicted in the form of foxfires glowing against a wintry dark sky. Foxes, the most magical of all Japanese animals, were believed to be messengers of the Inari deity.

In early forms of Shinto ritual practice, clay sculptures of animals called haniwa were placed around gravesites as protection for the dead. And size apparently did matter when it came to protective power; a four-foot-tall haniwa horse dating from the 6th century, on loan from LACMA, is one of the largest known horse sculptures from the period. The semi-divine power of animals, real or mythological, could be channeled into human beings by the use of animal symbolism on items of apparel; samurai armor featured dragons, and samurai helmets were shaped to look like they had deer antlers, or somewhat surprisingly for modern Westerners, rabbit ears.

Animals also had, and still have, cosmological significance, as in many other cultures, in connection with the celestial zodiac (the Japanese zodiacal menagerie is based on the Chinese). A remarkable mid-19th-century netsuke, or small ivory sculpture, by Kaigyokusai Masatsugu depicts all 12 zodiacal animals intertwined with each other. A series of color woodblock prints by the great 19th-century ukiyo-e master Kuniyoshi also depicts all 12 animals, which is comparatively rare in Japanese art.

In secular Japanese art, animals were frequently used as stand-ins for people, to criticize the foibles of society without necessarily incurring the wrath of the authorities. That gambit did not always work, of course; the artist Ukita Ikkei painted a fox wedding in Tale of a Strange Marriage (circa 1858). This was a fairly thinly disguised satirical reference to the wedding of a Tokugawa shogun to an imperial princess, and it earned its creator a year in jail. Soon after his release, Ikkei died. The painting, however, lives on, and even if the circumstances surrounding it are obscured by time, the lively images of the anthropomorphic foxes have as much spirit as ever.

In the 19th and 20th centuries, Japanese artists concentrated more than ever on portraying animals for their own sake, simply observing their distinctive beauty with wonder and deploying all the virtuosity of technique they had to do it justice. This new approach gave us many immortal works of naturalism—perhaps a stylized naturalism in many cases rather than the realist type current in the West at the time, but nonetheless an art that is devoted to animals for animals’ sake. A wonderful long horizontal scroll depicting birds sets their feathers, colorful or white, against a nearly plain cream background, the better to draw attention to the details of the creatures. Some animal portraits are psychologically as well as physically realistic. A very charming, nearly monochrome woodblock print from around 1890–1910 by Ogata Gekko shows a monkey swinging from a tree, reaching down with one long and slender arm to try and grab hold of the moon reflected in a pond. In three-dimensional works, the realism can be quite gripping and immediate, without abandoning decorative values; a perfect example is a glazed ceramic footed bowl with applied crabs by Miyagawa Kozan I (1881). On the other hand, a white bronze rabbit-shaped censer by Yamamoto Kozan (1935), subordinates naturalism to design, in this case, European-influenced Art Deco design. The ears curve back to form handles, and the smooth, rounded body conveys the sense of peace and serenity that only a sleeping animal can have.

The exhibition also includes contemporary artworks from Japan on animal themes, some of them inspired by classic artworks also on view. For example, the Kasuga Deer Mandala mentioned above got a response from the artist Nawa Kohei, in the form of titled PixCell Bambi #14 (2015), which is installed next to it. The haniwa animals inspired Yayoi Kusama to create her own version, multicolored dogs with, of course, multicolored polka dots. And fashion designer Issey Miyake, perhaps drawing on the tradition of animal-emblazoned furisode (robes) created garments that seem to turn the wearer into a fish, a monkey, or a bird.

By John Dorfman

Light from the East Wed, 29 Aug 2018 16:14:27 +0000 Continue reading ]]> Traditional Japanese paintings are an excellent buying opportunity, as well as a portal into a world of timeless grace and beauty.

Katsushika Hokusai, Tiger in Snow, 1849

Katsushika Hokusai, Tiger in Snow, 1849, hanging scroll, ink and color on silk;

Featured Images:(Click to Enlarge) Artist of the Rimpa School, Plains of Musashino With Full Moon Rising Hishikawa Morotane, Seated Beauty Smoking a Pipe, circa 1690–1710 Katsushika Hokusai, Tiger in Snow, 1849 Magnolias in Bloom, circa 1920s–1930s Utagawa Toyokuni, Gathering Herbs at Mimeguri, circa 1816

When Ernest Fenollosa, one of the pioneering Western scholars and collectors of Japanese art, was living in Japan in the 1880s, great Japanese paintings could be had for next to nothing. The daimyos, or nobles, caught up in the modernization of the Meiji Restoration, regarded their traditional art with indifference or even contempt, and this attitude, coupled with financial insecurity brought about by the fall of the feudal system, caused many of them to dump their collections. Fenollosa, who had a good eye and knew as much about Japanese art as many a native expert, was making incredible finds. He bought a great painting by Motonobu, a 16th-century master of the aristocratic Kano school, from an Osaka dealer, and he managed to find a famous ceramic Buddha head in a garbage can. When Fenollosa had amassed over a thousand paintings, he sold them to a Boston collector, C.G. Weld, who donated them to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. The Fenollosa-Weld Collection is, to this day, one of the two greatest museum holdings of Japanese paintings in the United States.

Today’s collectors can’t replicate Fenollosa’s experiences, of course, but traditional Japanese paintings still represent a great buying opportunity. New York dealer Joan Mirviss explains that several market factors have come together to make the present moment a very good time to collect in this field. For one thing, although museum exhibitions of Japanese paintings are well-attended, the commercial market has weakened over the past 15 or so years, because the top few collectors have either died or exited the field, donating their collections to institutions. That, says Mirviss, “has put an enormous dampener on the field,” which means that prices are at a relative low.

Meanwhile, in Japan, since the economic downturn that began in the mid-1990s, corporate and regional museums have had a difficult time making any acquisitions at all, and even the major national museums have “had their hands tied for some time in terms of having money,” says Mirviss. As a result, there are more good paintings still on the market than there would otherwise be. And finally, Japanese export laws are favorable to Western collectors, and, unlike China, the government is not in the habit of making cultural-patrimony claims on artworks or restricting them from being exported. In the case of paintings, says Mirviss, a work would have to be in the “A+++ category” in order for the government to say that it could not leave the country. “One can still get great things and export them legally,” she says. “That is not true of most of the rest of Asian art.”

Japanese painting dates back to the 8th century A.D., but collectors can realistically expect to find works on the market dating from the 17th century down to the early 20th century. Among the many schools and eras of Japanese painting, there is a distinction made between Japanese style (yamato-e) and Chinese style (kara-e)—although the distinction is a bit arbitrary in that yamato-e, as it developed in the Heian period (794–1185) is derived in many of its particulars from Tang-dynasty Chinese painting. As the terms evolved, yamato-e involves a highly detailed approach to landscape and a narrative aspect, whereas kara-e refers to a looser style derived from Chinese ink wash paintings. No paintings that anyone could collect today are pure yamato-e; rather, they may incorporate elements of it. For example, the great Kano school, which dominated Japanese painting from the late 15th century through the beginning of the Meiji period and produced the large-scale paintings that decorated noblemen’s castles, freely combined Chinese and yamato-e styles.

In terms of genres, Japanese painting can be divided into figurative, landscape, and “bird-and-flower”; the latter refers not only to paintings of those creatures only but also to studies of animals in general and to tabletop still lifes such as depictions of “scholars’ objects.” Ukiyo-e is a subset of figurative painting that is very appealing to collectors today. The term, often misunderstood to mean color woodblock prints, actually means “pictures of the floating world,” the Edo-period world of courtesans, actors, and other denizens of the urban night. Originally ukiyo-e meant pictures of any kind, whether paintings or prints, that depicted such characters and scenes, and by extension it came to refer to populist images that did not fit within the strictures of courtly art.

The physical presence of Japanese paintings is quite different from that of most paintings in the West. In traditional Japanese dwellings, artwork was never affixed permanently to walls. That was partly because of the fact that the walls were made of thin materials, but more importantly because of the Japanese belief that paintings should be rotated with the seasons or specially installed to satisfy the taste of a visiting guest. “Because of that predilection towards exhibition on an extremely temporary basis, works have to be able to be stored with great ease and safety,” says Mirviss. Therefore, most paintings were executed in scroll format, on silk or paper, usually hung vertically but sometimes horizontally, and they could easily be rolled up and slipped into purpose-built wooden receptacles for storage. Japanese collectors usually had storerooms or even warehouses off-site, where their artworks would be protected from fires and earthquakes, and paintings would travel back and forth between these facilities and the collectors’ homes.

The best-known format for Japanese painting is the folding wooden screen. Again, this format accorded particularly well with the impermanent nature of Japanese art display. Screens functioned as temporary room dividers, so the paintings that were affixed to them would be seen only on particular occasions. “If you want to make an elegant and inviting interior for your guests,” says Mirviss, “you put out a screen with, say, a snow scene or a harbinger of spring.” The typical format was the six-fold screen, with 12 panels, each about five and a half feet tall by one foot wide. And since screens usually came in pairs, the artist would have designed 24 feet of art. If you see a four-panel screen, it probably means the two outer panels have been lost over time. A much smaller type of screen is the two-paneled “sleeping screen,” around two to three feet high. They usually came in pairs and were put up to give houseguests privacy while sleeping, as well as during tea ceremonies.

The other major Japanese painting formats are the handscroll, the album, and the fan. These are less frequently collected by Westerners because they are more difficult to display and not suitable for decorating homes. A handscroll, which could be 20 feet in length, has to be unrolled bit by bit, so that one cannot view the entire composition at one time. Albums could be by a single artist or compilations of works by many artists; sometimes they contained narratives from classical literature, like illuminated manuscripts in the West. And finally, artists made paintings to be mounted on fans, many of which are not in good condition because of wear and tear through use of the fan. Some fan paintings have been removed from the fans and remounted as hanging scrolls.

A rich variety of Japanese paintings is available on the market today. Mirviss has a six-panel screen by the artist Tani Buncho, a member of the Yamato-e Revivalist School, dating to the period 1804–18. Done in ink and colors on gold leaf, it depicts Mount Tsukuba with trees and a river in the foreground. The use of vivid green and the extensive use of negative space give the painting a distinctive and almost mystical quality. Its companion screen, which depicts Mount Fuji, is in a Japanese museum collection. Mirviss is also offering a hanging scroll painting of a tiger—an important symbol of the yang principle of male energy in Asian art—by Kokei, a Kano school artist who moved more toward naturalism and embraced bird-and-flower painting. Signed and dated 1836, it was executed in ink, color, and gold on silk.

Another hanging scroll in Mirviss’ inventory, dated to an earlier period, circa 1745–48, depicts a flowering plum tree with the full moon in the background, in a nearly monochrome palette. The aesthetic is very Chinese, and the artist, Taiga, made it using the Chinese practice of finger-painting, in which the hand, fingertips, and fingernails and used to create effects supposedly unattainable by the brush. The full moon is given a looser, more colorful, and almost Impressionistic treatment in a 17th-century two-panel screen offered by Naga Antiques in Hudson, N.Y. Done by an artist of the Rimpa school, it depicts the plains of Musashino in rich green with the rising full moon shining white.

“During the Momoyama period (1573–1615) of early Japanese screen painting, this was one of the six very famous subject matters,” says Jim Marinaccio, owner of Naga Antiques. “Later, these same subjects were used as backdrops for Noh theater, and with time, these subject matters have become even more desirable.”

New York dealer Sebastian Izzard is a specialist in ukiyo-e paintings. He points out that these were done by the same artists whose names are famous for woodblock prints, such as Hokusai. The artists started out with book illustrations, then prints, and finally, when they were successful enough, they could make paintings, which were commissioned works. Of course, paintings are far rarer than prints, because prints are multiples while paintings are unique works, and many paintings in any given artist’s oeuvre are likely to have been destroyed or otherwise lost over time. Among Izzard’s stock of ukiyo-e paintings, many are of the typical beautiful, elegantly dressed women, such as Hishikawa Morotane’s Seated Beauty Smoking a Pipe (circa 1690–1710), and hanging scroll in ink, color, and gold on silk. Another scroll, Bewhiskered Man Importuning a Wakashu (circa 1736–44), by Miyagawa Issho, highlights the shadowy realm of nightlife. The older man, seated on a colorful carpet, reaches for the richly embroidered hem of the robe of the wakashu, a young man who inhabited a gender-fluid “third sex” category in Japanese culture.

Ukiyo-e also included vivid depictions of events both contemporary and legendary. The artist Kobayashi Kiyochika (1847–1915) did both. The Great Fire at Ryokogu, in the Princeton University collection, has a journalistic, you-are-there quality. Izzard says the artist “makes you feel he is standing behind the firemen, in the line of fire. It’s very immediate.” Another work by Kiyochika, The Fury of Monk Raigo, in the Met’s collection, also uses a virtuoso treatment of flames, this time to illustrate a quasi-historical event in which the 11th-century monk became enraged during an esoteric Buddhist fire ritual called a goma-e.

Prices for Japanese paintings at the top of the line can be in the seven figures. Izzard says “the best quality Hokusai,” could bring $1.5 million to $3 million, if it were to come on the market. Early ukiyo-e screens from the 17th century could bring similar prices. However, outside of such special works, Japanese painting is still a field in which top-quality works in excellent condition by great artists can be had in the five figures. Late-18th-century to early-19th-century paintings are available in the range of $30,000 to $250,000, depending on quality, rarity, and size (prices can go higher for paintings of this era that are especially large or important). Beginning collectors should be sure to buy from dealers who have expertise and can vouch for authenticity and condition.

By John Dorfman

Making Impressions Tue, 27 Feb 2018 18:56:18 +0000 Continue reading ]]> Modern and contemporary artists prove that when it comes to printmaking, there is no place in the world quite like Japan.

Shuji Wako, Open Secret (Mt. Fuji)

Shuji Wako, Open Secret (Mt. Fuji), lithograph

Featured Images:(Click to Enlarge) Kawase Hasui, Zojoji Shiba, 1925 Shuji Wako, Open Secret (Mt. Fuji) Hiromitsu Takahashi, Moshitsu, stencil print Shiko Munakata, Our Benefactor in the Mountains Keisuke Yamamoto, A Cloister, 2013, lithograph

The classic era of the Japanese woodblock print—created by artists such as Hokusai, Hiroshige, Utamaro, and Kuniyoshi—came to an end just before the 20th century began. Western art and technology, as well as the social and economic conditions of the Meiji period, created a new world of art and publishing in Japan, which did not have room in it for the old-style prints, or ukiyo-e. However, printmaking as a medium never died out; it reinvented itself, melding tradition with modernity, remaining fully Japanese while also belonging fully to the international contemporary art world. The craft of printmaking, in particular, continues to thrive in Japan. “Nobody prints the way the Japanese do, with such a sense of craft and tradition,” says Allison Tolman, a dealer of Japanese prints based in New York and Tokyo. “So many foreigners go there to print and learn printmaking.” In fact, one of the noteworthy features of the contemporary Japanese print scene is the presence of Western artists who use Japanese methods and whose work openly shows influence from Japanese culture.

Around a decade after the death of the last great master of ukiyo-e, Yoshitoshi, in 1892, two new movements in Japanese printmaking were launched, shin hanga (“new prints”) and sosaku hanga (“creative prints”). The latter was actually the first to emerge, although it took several more decades for it to really establish itself in the art world. In traditional Japanese printmaking, the artist created the design, while the blocks were carved by a different artisan and the inking and printing was done by yet another person. The whole process was a publishing enterprise rather than an act of individual self-expression. By contrast, sosaku hanga was DIY printmaking—“self-designed, self-carved, self-printed.” The first Japanese print of this kind is thought to be Kanae Yamamoto’s Fisherman (1904), which owes a great deal to Western woodcut technique and, in contrast to the wildly chromatic ukiyo-e, uses a muted two-color scheme, like a European “chiaroscuro” print. Sosaku hanga didn’t catch on with the buying public at that time, and it wasn’t until after World War II that it came into its own as the dominant school of printmaking. In 1951, when two sosaku hanga artists, Yamamoto and Kiyoshi Saito, won prizes at the São Paulo Biennale, international as well as Japanese recognition came to the school, and from then on, one-artist work has been the norm in Japanese printmaking.

From around 1915 through the war years, however, shin hanga was the standard, favored by Japanese as well as American print collectors. Shin hanga (“new prints”) tended to return to many of the themes of earlier Japanese printmaking—landscapes, cityscapes, beautiful women—but with a more explicitly “luxury” approach to the finish of the inked surfaces and with a certain indebtedness to European art styles such as Impressionism. Unlike sosaku hanga, shin hanga were executed the old way, by team effort. Kawase Hasui’s Zojoji Shiba (1925), a memorable image of a woman walking into a snowstorm, is emblematic of shin hanga, with its slightly updated, technically polished take on an old subject. It is worth noting that, in a prefiguration of what is happening today, some of the earliest shin hanga were by Western artists, who were commissioned by the pioneering print publisher Watanabe Shozaburo. Today’s Western-born artists on the Japanese printmaking scene include Daniel Kelly, Sarah Brayer, and Joshua Rome.

To the extent that Japanese printmakers drew inspiration from foreign sources, sosaku hanga, especially in the 1950s, looked to European avant-garde modernism, including abstractionism, in contrast to the more conservative Western models for shin hanga. But both schools, as well as many (but not all) contemporary artists, remained very connected to Japanese traditional religion, history, and aesthetics, which in the case of certain sosaku hanga artists manifested itself in a fondness for folk-culture imagery. Shiko Munakata (1903–75), for example, often depicted Buddhist subjects in a folk or naïve style, as can been seen in his print Our Benefactor in the Mountains. He also made works such as Banri Hen-un Nashi (Cloudless), that refer to traditional Zen calligraphy. Yoshitoshi Mori (1898–1992) made many colorful prints of grotesque, humorous figures from Japanese legends, such as Devil’s Drum. Kiyoshi Saito (1907–97) took a more austere approach, frequently making works that refer to modernist architecture and sculpture. Junichiro Sekino (1914–88), also found architecture alluring, but in his case the subjects were often old Japanese temples framed by flowers and ponds.

Works by these four printmakers were recently on view in an exhibition at Ronin Gallery in New York titled “Modern Masters: Collecting Memories of Post-War Japan.” David Libertson, the owner of Ronin, says, “All of these artists are interpreting their material in different ways, but all speak to the passage of time and state of flux in Japanese society. All incorporate Western elements, but all are proud to reference their heritage in a truly modern and contemporary way. Pride shines through in every one of these works.”

As for today’s printmaking world in Japan, the keyword is diversity, according to Tolman, a second-generation dealer whose parents came to Tokyo with the U.S. Foreign Service, became obsessed with print collecting, and stayed. “Today’s printmakers are mining the internet for inspiration; they’re in touch with so many more things than ever before.” Artists are responding to current events; Tolman mentions that the 2011 earthquake and tsunami generated many dark and disturbing prints, and cites Mayumi Oda as an artist who combines inspiration from Buddhism with an interest in environmentalism.

Traditional themes and concepts are being presented in more and more innovative ways. For example, Shuji Wako’s Open Secret looks at first glance like a bunch of colorful textiles thrown over a black backdrop. On closer inspection, one suddenly realizes that the negative space is the outline of Mount Fuji, one of the most iconic Japanese print subjects, hiding in plain sight. In Japanese Classic Calendar, Katsunori Hamanishi uses classic imagery—fans, a folding screen—to express the four seasons and their traditional lore in a clever, elegant fashion. Unlike a traditional print, though, this one is almost monochrome, in shades of gray with some bluish-green, and it is not a woodblock or even a lithograph but a mezzotint—a hugely labor-intensive older European technique that is particularly good at rendering dark shadows and that is now being rediscovered by younger printmakers in the West and in Japan.

Another younger artist who favors monochrome is Keisuke Yamamoto. Her large-scale lithographs of chairs standing in empty rooms, resemble black and white photographs. “They are so calm, they make you feel centered,” says Miranda Metcalf, director of Davidson Galleries in Seattle, which represents the artist. She adds that for many contemporary Japanese printmakers, there is a greater “focus on composition, line, and technique” than on color. Another artist who uses black and white to striking effect is Katsutoshi Yuasa, who transforms photographs into woodblock prints. His Tokyo Story is a take on a scene from the great film of the same title by Yasujiro Ozu. Yuasa’s work is available from Ronin Gallery. Another experimenter with media is Yuko Kimura, who exploits the intriguing patterns in the paper of old books of prints that have been eaten by worms. Michael Verne, a specialist dealer in Cleveland who shows her work, says, “Most ukiyo-e dealers are giving away books with wormholes in them. Kimura cuts up these books and collages them back together again. She’s one of the younger artists to watch.”

Contemporary Japanese prints are attractive not only for their creativity and beauty but also for their affordability. “They tend to have a low price point compared to other work with that level of skill,” says Metcalf, who ascribes it to the present strength of the dollar against the yen and to a weak print-collecting scene in Japan, where wall space tends to be scarce. “Customers often say, ‘I can’t believe these are so accessible.’ They’re great for young collectors. It’s a really wonderful side of the printmaking world.”

By John Dorfman

Treasures for the Future Tue, 27 Feb 2018 18:40:40 +0000 Continue reading ]]> The Rubin Museum of Art celebrates the legend and legacy of Padmasambhava, who is credited with bringing Buddhism to Tibet.

Portable Shrine (Tashi Gomang) of Padmasambhava’s Palace on the Copper-Colored Mountain

Portable Shrine (Tashi Gomang) of Padmasambhava’s Palace on the Copper-Colored Mountain, Bhutan; 18th–19th century, painted and gilded wood with sun-dried clay figures, 76.5 x 30.48 x 30.48 cm.

Featured Images:(Click to Enlarge) Scenes from the Life of Padmasambhava, Bhutan or Tibet, circa 18th century Padmasambhava, Tibet, 19th century Scenes from the Life of Padmasambhava, Tibet Padmasambhava as Nyima Ozer, Tibet Portable Shrine (Tashi Gomang) of Padmasambhava’s Palace on the Copper-Colored Mountain

According to legend, Padmasambhava was a divine being with magical powers who emerged fully-formed from a lotus blossom at the age of eight (his name means “the lotus-born one” in Sanskrit), brought tantric Buddhist teachings to Tibet, battled local gods and demons who resisted the new religion, and deposited hidden treasures to be found by future generations. According to the historical record, or what remains of it, Padmasambhava was born like anyone else at the age of zero, either in what is now western Pakistan or what is now eastern India, and traveled through Bhutan, Nepal, and Tibet during the 8th century spreading Buddhism, supervising translations of scriptures, and winning the favor and occasionally the enmity of the local aristocracy. There is also a possibility that he never existed, at least not as a single person. In any case, the figure of Padmasambhava—sometimes called “the second Buddha”—looms large in the world of Himalayan culture, to the point where it is impossible to imagine its art without him. Biographies, the first of which was written in the 12th century, credit him with single-handedly bringing Buddhism to Tibet, and accordingly, depictions of Padmasambhava and his legendary deeds dominate the iconography of Tibetan painting and sculpture.

At the Rubin Museum of Art, a unique institution in New York dedicated to Himalayan art in all its forms, “Padmasambhava wins by a big margin over Shakyamuni Buddha [the founding figure of Buddhism itself] in terms of numbers of images in our collection,” says curator Elena Pakhoutova. “He occupies a lot of bandwidth in Tibetan culture.” Fittingly, then, in February the Rubin opened “The Second Buddha: Master of Time,” an ambitious exhibition focusing on artistic depictions of Padmasambhava, drawing not only on its own first-class holdings but also on loans from public and private collections around the world, including some pieces from Switzerland that have never before been shown publicly. After remaining on view for the rest of 2018, the show will travel to the Frances Young Tang Teaching Museum and Art Gallery at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., which co-produced the exhibition catalogue with the Rubin.

“The Second Buddha” features 41 works in various media, dating from the 13th century to the 20th. In addition, the exhibition deploys augmented-reality technology to reveal subtleties and hidden motifs in the paintings, analogous to the secret treasures (known in Tibetan as terma) hidden throughout the Tibetan landscape by Padmasambhava himself. “The Second Buddha” is an immersive experience that communicates the enduring power of this sacred figure within the Tibetan imagination and suggests its relevance for all human beings.

One important genre of Padmasambhava art is the panoramic biographical painting, which encompasses all the major episodes of his life as well as the various forms under which he manifested himself. In such paintings, mythographic completeness and visual unity take precedence over chronology, so that multiple times and places are portrayed within one frame. In a sense, this approach also indicates Padmasambhava’s ability to transcend time. A representative example is Padmasambhava, His Eight Manifestations and Life Story, a 19th-century pigments on cloth painting from Bhutan. In the center of the composition sits Padmasambhava, enclosed within a rainbow (indicative of the “rainbow body” of light achieved by enlightened beings according to Tibetan Buddhism). Around him are little vignettes depicting scenes from his life, beginning with his miraculous birth at the upper left and continuing clockwise with his life as a wandering ascetic in India and his exploits in Tibet subduing demons and teaching tantra. Scattered between these scenes are eight somewhat larger figures representing Padmasambhava’s manifestations.

Other paintings in the exhibition concentrate on specific episodes in the life and career of Padmasambhava or depict him in one particular role. For example, in Scenes from the Life of Padmasambhava, a 19th-century Tibetan pigments on cloth painting, shows the discovery of the new-born teacher, floating on the water on his open-petaled lotus, by the childless King Indrabhuti of Oddiyana, who had been on a voyage in search of a magical wish-granting jewel. The king then raised the boy as his own son. The narrative, perhaps tapping into universal archetypes, seems to echo the biblical story of the infant Moses. In the center of the composition is a related scene that shows Padmasambhava again on a lotus, in a later incident in which he emerged miraculously regenerated on the flower after having been burned at the stake by anti-Buddhist zealots.

Padmasambhava has numerous other names that indicate various aspects of his being, as well as roles and guises he assumes. A gilt copper alloy sculpture made in Tibet during the 18th century, on view in the Rubin exhibition, represents him as Nyima Ozer (“Rays of the Sun” in Tibetan), an ascetic who practices tantric yoga at burial grounds while wearing a garland of skulls, surrounded by serpents, and holding a mirror in the shape of the sun disk. Despite the deathly iconography, the figure is serene rather than eerie, raising his right hand in a gesture of reassurance and benediction. Acceptance of death and knowledge as to how to navigate post-mortem stages of existence are key elements of Tibetan Buddhism. In fact, another 18th-century Tibetan painting in the show, Peaceful and Wrathful Deities of the Intermediate State (Bardo), represents this after-death world (or worlds), in which souls encounter frightening visions that are the result of their bad karma. If the soul recognizes them for what they are—illusions, projections of the mind—they will no longer stand in the way of the attainment of enlightenment or at least a favorable reincarnation. A major body of Tibetan Buddhist literature, including the famous Bardo Thodol or “Tibetan Book of the Dead,” is built around detailed instructions for the soul to follow for successful navigation of the post-mortem realms.

One positive after-death outcome is for a soul that does not achieve liberation in this life to encounter Padmasambhava in his realm on the Glorious Copper-Colored Mountain. There the Buddha can directly liberate the soul from illusion and bring it to enlightenment. This mountain, which is conceived by Tibetan Buddhists both as a physically real place and a symbolic one representing an inner journey, is the subject of Padmasambhava in His Pure Realm, the Copper-Colored Mountain, a 19th-century cloth painting from Kham Province in Eastern Tibet (illustrated on page 18). Here the savior inhabits a palace with intricately depicted complex architecture within a hexagonal walled city atop the reddish mountain, which in turn is surrounded by a sort of moat or circular river. The Copper Mountain is also depicted in a fantastic painted gilt-wood portable shrine from 18th–19th-century Bhutan, on loan to the Rubin from a private collection.

Another persona of Padmasambhava is shown in a ground mineral pigment on cotton painting from 19th-century Tibet. Here he is simply a teacher, the “Precious Guru” who generously brings the Buddhist doctrines and meditation techniques to Tibet, represented as a snow-bound land inhabited by red-faced barbarians—which is how the Tibetans, rather self-effacingly, portray themselves as having been before the civilizing influence of Buddhism. The inscriptions on the painting speak of bridging the past, present, and future. Herein lies a major theme of the exhibition: the hidden treasures, or terma, which Padmasambhava planted in Tibet as a way of helping secure the future of the people, and ultimately, of the whole world. Terma are particularly important in the Nyingma tradition within Tibetan Buddhism, which traces directly back to Padmasambhava, but they are important in other Tibetan Buddhist lineages and even in the still-existing pre-Buddhist Bön religion, all of which pay homage to Padmasambhava.

Terma can take the form of manuscripts or ritual implements, and they are said to have been secreted in caves or under rocks or within crystals. They can even be hidden in trees, under water, or in the sky. The idea of concealment is not just physical; essentially it symbolizes the hiddenness or latency of the teachings in the mind, from which they cannot emerge until the recipient is ready. In other words, certain ideas and practices in Tibetan Buddhism are conceived of as emerging only when the time is ripe. Some of the teachings are legacies for the future, and the future depends upon the past. The connection between past and future is built from faith and love, which is symbolized in one of the paintings in the Rubin exhibition as an iron bridge built by Padmasambhava.

“Padmasambhava could see past, present, and future as they exist,” explains Pakhoutova. “He saw that Tibet would have a very difficult time and that traditions would be lost, so he concealed some teachings that he thought would be useful in objects and in memories embedded in the minds of disciples. He projected his teachings forward into the future and made them accessible in our own time.” The presence of terma is denoted in some of the paintings as handprints and footprints that Padmasambhava left behind, symbolically marking the landscape of Tibet and rendering it sacred geography. In addition, the exhibition represents terma treasures in the form of ritual objects such as a dagger (kila) and a scepter (dorje).

The Rubin curators have taken an unconventional and very of-the-moment way to help visitors understand the concept of terma—augmented reality. The AR technology deployed in the exhibition uses digital reconstructions and animations, which will be viewable by using iPads. Pakhoutova says, “We wanted to convey the idea of the hidden or the not apparent; we wanted viewers to have the experience of discovery. The AR is being used to reveal something which is not apparent in the artworks. The paintings will come to life.”

By John Dorfman

The Empress Impresses Thu, 30 Nov 2017 07:49:29 +0000 Continue reading ]]> Artworks from the collection of the Empress Dowager Cixi come to the Bowers Museum, shedding light on the interaction of taste and power in the twilight of Imperial China.

Tablet in the shape of a bat

Tablet in the shape of a bat, late 19th century, wood, 22 x 43 x 5.5 in., with calligraphy reading, “Moving and directing wind from all directions.”

Featured Images:(Click to Enlarge) vessel (zun) Plaque with the character for longevity (shou) Dai Ze, H.I.M. The Empress Dowager of China, 1979 Tablet in the shape of a bat Platform shoes

Connoisseurship, a millennia-old tradition in China, was generally the purview of men, and the leader of the collecting community was the Emperor himself. But one hugely powerful Chinese woman achieved distinction in the field, as well as in the field of power politics—Cixi, known as the Empress Dowager. Her lifespan, 1835–1908, coincides with the death throes of Imperial China, for she was succeeded by a two-year-old boy who was deposed by Republican forces by the time he was six, which ended not only the Qing (or Manchu) Dynasty but 3,500 years of dynastic rule.

Now, as China rediscovers the past that the Communist government long rejected, a major trove of art and design objects from the Empress Dowager’s collection, housed in the Summer Palace Museum in Beijing, is coming to the U.S. “Empress Dowager Cixi: Selections from the Summer Palace” opened at the Bowers Museum in Santa Ana, Calif., on November 12 and will be on view through March 11, 2018, presenting over 100 objects that have never before been seen outside the palace.

Cixi, a member of the Manchu nobility, started her career as a concubine of the Xianfeng Emperor, to whom she bore a son in 1856. When the emperor died at the age of 30 in 1861, the boy became the Tongzhi Emperor, and Cixi achieved a new level of power as the emperor’s mother and regent. When Tongzhi died of smallpox at 18 in 1875, Cixi made sure that her nephew became emperor; he ruled under the name of Guangxu until his death in 1908. Playing the game of court politics with a sure instinct, Cixi was essentially the power behind the throne for over 40 years.

During this time, Western powers became increasingly involved in Chinese affairs, notably during the Second Opium War of 1860 and in the aftermath of the Boxer Rebellion of 1899–1901. The Empress Dowager was very friendly with English, French, and American diplomats in China (and their wives, who were often involved in the arts), and her collecting taste was influenced by Western culture, without being unmoored from its grounding in classical Chinese aesthetic doctrines.

Victoria Gerard, Curator of Collections and Special Exhibitions, curated the show along with Ying-chen Peng, professor of art history at American University in Washington, D.C., and an expert on the Empress Dowager. Gerard says, “We wanted to show the Empress Dowager’s influence beyond the official aspects of her reign. No one had really written about or explored her collecting tastes. This is not only the international debut of this collection, but of the Empress Dowager herself from this perspective.”

Many of the works on view at the Bowers bear symbolism that was personal to the Empress and reflected her concerns. Longevity was a perennial obsession of hers; she adopted a special diet to promote health and long life. “Ying-chen and I call longevity the key word of the exhibition,” says Gerard. Among the Chinese images that connote longevity are bats and peaches, and both can be found in profusion on objects that were made for the Empress Dowager—what Gerard calls “an auspicious universe of decoration for longevity.” For example, a yellow porcelain set made for her 60th birthday (though not actually used until her 70th because of the First Sino-Japanese War, which pre-empted her 60th-birthday celebrations) features swarms of flying bats as well as the Chinese character for longevity (shou). The grinning head of a bat also appears at the bottom of a calligraphic tablet, on view in the exhibition.

The Empress Dowager was herself a serious calligrapher. Four pieces of calligraphy attributed to her are in the show; two of those Peng considers autograph works, and the other two “ghost-painted” on behalf of the Empress. One of the autograph works is a large and impressive panel of the character for longevity, with bats in the background. “The scholar elite was traditionally male,” says Gerard. “The fact that she created an oversize beautiful piece of calligraphy with that character tells the story of someone who wants to use art to substantiate herself as ruler.”

Visitors to the exhibition will notice that there are quite a few objects that look Western, such as clocks with rococo design, a telescope, a vanity, and a clock in the shape of a steam locomotive. Some of these were imported from Europe, while others were made in China by European firms that had facilities there. Court officials looking to curry favor with the Empress would give her these kinds of things, knowing of her interest in Western art and technology, and the Guangxu Emperor himself was, as Gerard puts it, “obsessed by clocks.”

Another Western artwork represented in the exhibition is a large oil portrait of the Empress Dowager by the Dutch-born artist Hubert Vos, executed after 1902. The Empress was acutely conscious of her public image and controlled it accordingly. The first Chinese ruler to be photographed, she had her photographs carefully retouched before sending them out to foreign dignitaries. Gerard says that the way Vos depicted the Empress in this regal, opulent painting was “influenced by her ideas,” although she ended up keeping the picture private.

One really remarkable piece of Western technology in the show is a 1901 Duryea motorcar made in Reading, Pa., that belonged to the Empress Dowager. A birthday gift from one of her generals, it is believed to have been custom-made for her and to be the first car ever exported to China. Gerard relates the story of a Chinese chauffeur who was so nervous about driving for the Empress Dowager that he got drunk first and then crashed the car, after which it was never driven again. In any case, the present exhibition marks its first outing from the Summer Palace since 1901.

By John Dorfman

Spirit Animals Tue, 26 Sep 2017 17:54:51 +0000 Continue reading ]]> The Met will showcase nature symbolism in luxurious lacquer and silk objects from late Imperial China.

Dish with Peafowls and Peonies, Ming dynasty

Dish with Peafowls and Peonies, Ming dynasty
(1368–1644), Yongle period (1403–24), carved red lacquer.

Featured Images:(Click to Enlarge) Box with Chrysanthemum and Praying Mantis Box with Dragon Design Dish with Peafowls and Peonies, Ming dynasty Emperor’s Twelve-Symbol Festival Robe Medallion with Two Peacocks Tea-Bowl Stand with Phoenixes

The Chinese Imperial court, with its endless artifices, intrigues, and rituals conducted behind high walls, may seem to have been at many removes from pristine nature. But in elite traditional Chinese culture, nature was not only something to appreciate aesthetically or to retreat to for purposes of rest and contemplation; it was also freighted with symbolic value, each animal representing important political, religious, and cultural values. So it should come as no surprise to see art objects made of two of ancient China’s favorite luxury materials, lacquer and silk, reveling in animal figures, either real—the ox, the lion, the butterfly—or mythical—the phoenix, the dragon, the unicorn.

These and more can, in fact, be seen starting October 21 at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, which is mining its vast Chinese art holdings to present “Spirited Creatures: Animal Representations in Chinese Silk and Lacquer” (through July 22, 2018). Curator Pengliang Lu has selected 20 textiles and 50 lacquer vessels to tell a story of the interpenetration of the human and non-human realms over a period of six centuries, from the 13th to the 19th, from the height to the twilight of dynastic China. The objects on view are drawn entirely from the Met’s permanent collection, and the show, made possible by the Joseph Hotung Fund, will be a rare treat, in that some of them have not been seen publicly for decades.

One of the earliest objects in the show, a carved red lacquer Dish with Peafowls and Peonies, dates from the Yongle period (1403–24) of the Ming dynasty (1368–1644). It shows the peacock and the peahen with their bodies curved so as to harmonize with the circular form of the dish, and their tail feathers (the male’s much longer) are intertwined with the dense flowers. The peacock is not native to China and was likely brought there from the Malay peninsula. It is symbolic of imperial dignity, and starting with the accession to power of the Ming emperors, its tail feathers were used to designate courtly rank. The peony, an omen of good fortune, is considered to belong to the yang, or male, active principle in Chinese cosmology. The treatment of the flowers in this piece, in which the leaves overlap without any foreground-background distinction, is typical of the early 15th century. The overall effect of the piece, with its monochrome rich red and intricate carving, is a paradoxical union of nature and artifice.

The peacock is also the star of Medallion with Two Peacocks, a Ming-dynasty silk and metallic thread tapestry (kesi) from the 16th century. The circular form of this textile object as it exists today is reminiscent of the lacquer dish, albeit in a riot of color, with the birds blending gracefully with flowers, as well as clouds and mountains. However, it was originally square, a rank badge for a court official which was worn attached to a garment. Considering the symbolism of actual peacock tail feathers, the depiction of the animal itself on a rank badge is particularly appropriate.

Flowers and animals are shown intertwined on another striking piece in the exhibition, a Box with Chrysanthemum and Praying Mantis, also from the 16th century. This box is carved in strong relief, with the insects and flowers rendered in red lacquer while the leaves are in contrasting black lacquer.

Dragons, though not observable by naturalists in the wild, are one of the most important animals in Chinese iconography and lore, and they feature on several of the objects in “Spirited Creatures.” An example is a Sutra Box with Dragons amid Clouds from the Yongle period (1403–24), in red lacquer with incised decoration inlaid with gold and a damascened brass lock and key. This splendid object was intended to hold a handscroll of a Buddhist text. Such boxes were in use in the Imperial court but were also frequently given as diplomatic gifts, especially to Tibet, where Buddhist literature would have been appreciated. The dragon, which is considered to inhabit the sky, is a symbol of power as well as of change, and was beloved of the Chinese emperors, whose throne and robes of state were replete with dragon designs, from the Han Dynasty (206 B.C.–220 A.D.) on down. The dragon was usually depicted as a snake-like quadruped, and the version with five claws was the exclusive symbol of Imperial power in the Ming and Qing (1644–1911) periods. The beautiful blue and gold Emperor’s Twelve-Symbol Festival Robe from the Qianlong period (1736–95) of the Ming Dynasty, made of silk and gold-and-silver thread embroidery on silk twill, features dragons that seem to fly in the sky amid swirling clouds.

Cousins of the dragon in the everyday world of nature can be found on another textile in the show, a Panel with the Five Poisonous Creatures from the Wanli period (1573–1620) of the Ming Dynasty, in monochrome silk gauze, a very ancient technique in China. The animals depicted—snake, centipede, scorpion, toad, and spider—are considered auspicious despite their creepy-crawly aspect, using their poisons in a protective way. Their powers are called upon during the festival of Duanwu (or the Dragon Boat festival), the fifth day of the fifth lunar month.

In contrast to the Emperor’s dragon, the mythical phoenix was associated with the Empress. A Tea-Bowl Stand with Phoenixes from the Yongle period depicts the immortal, supernatural birds sharply carved into red lacquer. The bowl-like upper part is actually the holder into which a porcelain bowl is meant to be placed. The celadon green or blue-and-white coloration of the bowl would have contrasted nicely with the deep red of the lacquer.

Another popular creature in Chinese iconography is the butterfly, which is seen on a Woman’s Robe with Butterflies from the late 19th or early 20th century, the very end of the Qing Dynasty and the end of Imperial China itself. Several species of bright-winged butterflies flutter across the cherry red ground and dark sleeve bands of this magnificent silk-satin garment. Butterflies are associated with weddings and joyous celebrations in general and therefore auspicious; in Chinese its name (hudie) is a pun for “aged 70 to 80,” and so the insect is also a symbol of longevity. Educated Chinese who saw this robe would doubtless also have been reminded of the butterfly mentioned in the Zhuangzi, one of the greatest philosophical classics. In that book, dating to the Warring States period (476–221 B.C.), Zhuang Zhou writes of dreaming that he was a butterfly, “fluttering about, happy with himself and doing as he pleased.” Upon waking, the philosopher “didn’t know if he was Zhuang Zhou who had dreamt he was a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming that he was Zhuang Zhou…. This is called the Transformation of Things.” In the works on display in “Animal Spirits,” viewers will certainly experience “the transformation of things.”

By John Dorfman

Hanging the Moon Wed, 01 Mar 2017 21:32:49 +0000 Continue reading ]]> Pictures of the floating world land in museums around the country.

Kitagawa Utamaro Cherry Blossoms at Yoshiwara

Kitagawa Utamaro Cherry Blossoms at Yoshiwara, c. 1793, hanging scroll, ink, gouache, gold and gold‐leaf on bamboo paper.

Featured Images:(Click to Enlarge) Kawase Hasui, The Kaminohashi Bridge in Fukagawa Hashimoto Okiie, Young Girl and Iris Attributed to Utamaro School, Woman and Wakashu Kitagawa Utamaro Cherry Blossoms at Yoshiwara

In 2014 the Okada Museum of Art in Hakone, Japan, revealed that a lost painting attributed to Kitagawa Utamaro had been found and was in the institution’s possession. On Friday, April 4 of that year, the painting, Fukagawa in the Snow (circa 1802–06), went on public view for the first time in 66 years.

It had last been seen in April 1948, when it was displayed at the second “Ukiyo-e Masterpieces” exhibition at the Matsuzakaya Ginza department store in Tokyo. The exhibition ran for only three days, and after its conclusion, the whereabouts of the painting became unknown.

For the art world at large, the rediscovery and exhibition of Fukagawa in the Snow was big news, but for two American museums, it meant a lot more. The painting is presumed to be a part of a triptych referred to as Snow, Moon and Flowers. The three paintings, which depict three different pleasure districts in Edo (now Tokyo), are thought to have been painted within a 14-year span, though none of them is dated—or, for that matter, signed. Moonlight Revelry at Dozo Sagami (circa 1788)—or, as it is also known, Moon at Shinagawa—was acquired in Paris in 1903 by Charles Lang Freer, the founder of what is now the Freer|Sackler, the Asian art branch of the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C., and became a part of the collection he donated to the Smithsonian. Cherry Blossoms at Yoshiwara (circa 1793) was purchased in 1957 by Charles C. Cunningham, the former director of the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Conn., for the museum’s growing Asian art collection. Neither institution has had the opportunity to show its paintings alongside the missing piece of the triptych.

Where Fukagawa in the Snow had been for nearly seven decades and how it was found remains a secret. That is to say, the Okada Museum of Art will not divulge how or from where the painting was recovered. Yet even though many aspects of Snow, Moon and Flowers are still mysterious, the public will finally be able to see the triptych together, in the same gallery. On April 8, “Inventing Utamaro: A Japanese Masterpiece Rediscovered” will open at the Freer|Sackler (the show will be held in the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery while the Freer Gallery of Art is under renovation). The exhibition, which runs through July 9, puts all three paintings on view together for the first time in nearly 140 years. Currently, the Wadsworth is staging a smaller reunion between Fukugawa in the Snow and its own painting, Cherry Blossoms at Yoshiwara; that show, “Utamaro and the Lure of Japan,” opened in January and runs through March 26. The Freer|Sackler’s painting, Moonlight Revelry at Dozo Sagami will only be seen in D.C., due to a stipulation in Freer’s will that that no work in his collection ever be loaned. A facsimile of Moonlight Revelry at Dozo Sagami will appear at both the Wadsworth’s exhibition and at an exhibition at the Okada Museum of Art, which will open in July (the Wadsworth’s painting will travel to that show).

The triptych’s reunion marks an important moment for Utamaro scholarship, as well as for scholarship on Japanese art in general. Just being able to see the three paintings in the same room will help test hypotheses. James Ulak, the senior curator of Japanese art at the Freer|Sackler and the co-curator of the museum’s exhibition, contacted the Okada Museum of Art within days of the announcement of the rediscovery of Fukugawa in the Snow. He quickly received an indication from the Japanese museum that showing their painting “could happen.” Two years later, with the exhibition set, Ulak says, “Now we can do a really exhaustive study.” Much of that will be an analysis of the three paintings’ relationship to each other. “It’s one of the many mysteries related to the explosion of interest in Japanese art on the world level in the 19th century, that many ensembles of paintings were disassembled and sold,” says Ulak, “and now for the first time [the exhibition] brings together three works that were being talked about as a triptych, and we can see them side by side and test these theories.”

The oldest record of the triptych dates to November 23, 1879, when the three paintings were hung together in an exhibition at Joganji temple in Tochigi, a city about an hour and a half from Edo by train. At the time, all three paintings were in the possession of the Zenno family, a prominent Tochigi clan. Art historians have theorized that Snow, Moon and Flowers was painted for Zenno Ihei, a wealthy merchant. Outside of the 1879 exhibition, the theory is linked to the fact that women in each of the three paintings wear garments that bear the Zenno family crest. But, as with so many things about the Utamaro triptych, it’s hard to say definitively if this is true.

The paintings all depict groups of women in Edo’s brothels. They are all large scale. This is unusual for the ukiyo-e genre (pictures of the “floating world”—a realm of pleasure or fantasy outside of everyday life), which more typically takes the form of smaller woodblock prints, paintings, and books. However, the paintings have quite a few differences—particularly in the way the figures are rendered, their size, and their number. “One thought,” says Ulak, “is that the paintings could be by Utamaro and a studio of artists, which was very common.” Julie Nelson Davis, the show’s guest curator and a professor of art history at the University of Pennsylvania, says, “What holds the paintings together is ‘snow, moon, and flowers,’ which was a common theme in the period—there’s kind of a literate association.”

“But what’s odd about that,” says Ulak, “is that if one were intending to paint that theme, why would the moon come first in production?” In the speculative chronology of the three paintings, which was conjectured by a scholar associated with the Okada Museum based on stylistic features, the thematic order is strangely out of whack—with Moonlight Revelry at Dozo Sagami (moon) being the oldest, followed by Cherry Blossoms at Yoshiwara (flowers), and then Snow at Fukagawa (snow). But the theme aside, the very particular fashions of late 17th-century and early 18th-century Japan are what tip scholars off to the set’s chronology. “We can date work within a couple years according to hairstyle,” says Nelson Davis. “It’s just like today—no one wears ‘The Rachel’ anymore.”

Another difference between each painting is the district it depicts and the districts’ status. Yoshiwara was the only licensed brothel district in Edo during the creation of the triptych and was considered higher-class. “It had an exclusive aura about it,” says Ulak. “Visitors had to master a certain lingo, dress properly—there was kind of a code around it.” Cherry Blossoms of Yoshiwara has the most figures in it—nearly 50—and is certainly the most grand. Oliver Tostmann, the Susan Morse Hilles Curator of European Art at the Wadsworth and the organizing curator of the museum’s exhibition, says of the piece, “It’s an unheard of number of women for Utamaro—it’s like he wanted to show what he was capable of. You see all different ranks: star courtesans and the assistants who are helping them, little girls training to become courtesans, geishas upstairs, and women who are unrelated to these two groups whose role we’re not entirely sure of.” As in the other two paintings, there’s a complete absence of men. “It’s this female Arcadia that he created,” says Tostmann.

Shinagawa, which is represented in Moonlight Revelry at Dozo Sagami, was a district that developed a large trade in unlicensed prostitution. It was the first station on the road that leads from Edo to Kyoto, and as Ulak notes, “it became known as more cost-effective.” In Moonlight Revelry, Utamaro gives viewers a closer look at the women and their surroundings—fauna, decorative piece, and fabrics seem touchable. It’s almost as if the viewer were standing in the scene. There is a sense of calm, rather than the busy preparation of the Yoshiwara painting. Beyond the brothel is the sea—placid and baby-blue—a cradle for sailboats and the moon on the horizon. Fukugawa was a district in the eastern side of Edo known in particular for its geisha (though some of them also engaged in unlicensed prostitution). It is no surprise then that among the snow-filled branches of trees in Snow at Fukagawa stand quite a few geisha dressed in their finery. Less spacious than Moonlight Revelry at Dozo Sagami but less busy than Cherry Blossoms of Yoshiwara, the painting seems to strike a balance between the two.

The Freer|Sackler’s show seeks in part to understand Utamaro, one of the greatest print designers and painters of the ukiyo-e genre. “Utamaro was one of the first so-called ‘branded artists,’” says Ulak. “He created a celebrity persona, and his works were pitched that way.” Though Japanese culture typically values anonymity and the strength of the group rather than individual genius, Utamaro’s publishers marketed him as an artist of particular expertise and understanding: a sophisticated womanizer who knew sex and women. “There’s a fascination with cataloguing things during Utamaro’s time,” says Ulak, “and Utamaro depicts a lot of women in the licensed brothel district, but you also see him doing images of women around the city—waitresses, tea shop women, fan girls, wives—he starts to catalogue all the women in Edo and his publishers support that.” But other than his work and reputation, not much is known about the artist. “In the late 19th century, there’s a little documentation,” says Nelson Davis. “We learn he died in 1806, but we don’t even know where he was born.”

In the second half of the 19th century, the opening of Japan to the West and the presentation at the 1878 Paris World’s Fair gave rise to a craze for Japanese art and japonisme. All three paintings were brought to Paris a little over a decade after the exhibition in Tochigi. They were most likely in the possession of Hayashi Tadamasa, a Japanese art dealer who had a large hand in introducing ukiyo-e to the West.

It was from Tadamasa that a French collector first purchased the painting that eventually ended up at the Wadsworth. By the time the painting arrived there, the museum had amassed a rather impressive collection of Japanese fine and decorative art, including pieces from Commodore Perry’s exchange of gifts with Japan in 1853. Today the collection totals around 1,000 objects—many from acquisitions, others, gifts from local collections. “Utamaro and the Lure of Japan” puts 50 objects, including prints, textiles, porcelain, and armaments from the museum’s holdings on view alongside the two Utamaro paintings. The exhibition will contextualize Cherry Blossoms of Yoshiwara, a masterpiece that the Wadsworth has only shown once before. “In 2009 we had a little show about something in the vein of ‘unseen treasures from our collection,’” says Tostmann. “That was the first time the Utamaro painting was exhibited, and it was hung among European works and American works, so there was really no comparison.” The curator adds, “This exhibition is really the first time that we look comprehensively at Japanese art and what we have at the museum.”

As it happens, the Wadsworth is not the only New England museum taking stock of its holdings of Japanese art. The Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Mass., is currently showing “Japanese Impressions: Color Woodblock Prints from the Rodbell Family Collection” (through April 2). The exhibition features 73 color woodblock prints, 48 of which are from the Rodbell Family Collection given to the museum in 2014.

Adele Rodbell, a collector based in the Berkshires and the Clark’s longest-serving docent (she’s served for 38 years), lived in Japan with her late husband, Donald, and their three kids from 1969–72 after Donald was appointed a scientific representative for the research laboratory at General Electric. While in Japan, the family traveled around the country, and Adele took classes in Japanese art and calligraphy. After they returned to America, she began to collect Japanese prints, mostly through dealers. “Adele was very modest,” says Jay Clarke, the Manton Curator of Prints, Drawing and Photographs and the curator of the show. “She said she had a small collection, if I ever wanted to see it, and when I finally did, I was blown away.”

The collection features three generations of Japanese printmakers, including ukiyo-e artists of the 19th century who followed closely after Utamaro, such as Katsushika Hokusai and Utagawa Hiroshige. Awa Province: Naruto Whirlpools (1855) from Hiroshige’s series Famous Places in the Sixty-Odd Provinces is among the pieces on view. The richly colored print of a whirlpool and treacherous waves crashing on jagged rocks could be in a 21st-century manga. In its own time, the series started a trend of vertically composed landscapes. Another landscape series of Hiroshige’s, One Hundred Famous Views of Edo, was a favorite of Vincent van Gogh and James McNeill Whistler (a friend of Freer’s who turned the collector on to ukiyo-e). Plum Estate, Kameido, a print from the series that’s in the Clark’s exhibition, was copied by Van Gogh in 1887.

The exhibition also features examples of shin-hanga (new print), a movement that sprouted in Japan during the beginning of the 20th century. Shin-hanga blended traditional Japanese printmaking techniques with modern Western artistic principles like realism and perspective. The Rodbells collected several prints by Kawase Hasui, an artist whose work embodies this moment in Japanese printmaking. Hasui, who initially trained as a painter, created several prints that feature contemporary bridges. Two prints in the show, The Kaminohashi Bridge in Fukagawa, from Twelve Scenes of Tokyo (1920) and Evening Shower at Imai Bridge from One Hundred Views of Tokyo (1932), both depict wooden bridges stretched across the water in muted tones.

Another extension of the ukiyo-e tradition, sosaku-hanga, meaning “original creative print,” arose in Japan in the 1950s. Unlike many of their predecessors, who had different craftsmen help them with aspects of the complicated printmaking process, Sosaku-hanga printmakers developed the own designs and carved the woodblocks and printed the images themselves. The resulting prints were often minimal and abstract—a marriage of the modern with the traditional. “Japanese Impressions” boasts several prints by Kiyoshi Saito, a leader of the sosaku-hanga movement, including Gion in Kyoto B (1959), a highly geometric rendering of a Buddhist temple. Another standout of the exhibition is Hashimoto Okiie’s Young Girl and Iris (1952), an abstract image of a girl in a striped shirt sitting among giant blue irises. The striking print, which is not what a viewer would necessarily expect at a Japanese prints show, seems to be garnering a lot of attention. “When people familiar with W,estern art see it, they immediately say ‘Gauguin!’ says Clarke, “I was almost thinking of not having it in the exhibition because it’s so different—it’s like ‘one of these things is not like the other’ on Sesame Street—but in the end I put it in the introductory room.”

“A Third Gender: Beautiful Youths in Japanese Prints,” an exhibition opening at the Japan Society in New York this month (on view March 10–June 11) will also likely introduce viewers to work they’re not used to. The exhibition focuses on wakashu, a group of comely male youths who constituted their own gender category during the Edo period (1603–1868), and their place in the art of that period.

Though a non-binary view of gender is just beginning to take root in mainstream thinking, early modern Japan explored the notion that sexuality is not simply defined by biological sex centuries ago. Wakashu, or “beautiful youths,” was essentially a group of adolescent males who were sexually mature but had not passed through the coming-of-age ceremonies that proclaimed a boy a man in Japanese society. “The wakashu is a younger generation—adolescent, teenager—who is not yet considered an adult,” says Yukie Kamiya, the Gallery Director at the Japan Society. “In Japan, 20 years old is mature age; you can start voting and drinking and you change your hairstyle.” Kamiya says, “Japan especially appreciates this generation.”

Much like the eromenos, or youths, of the pederasty in ancient Greece, the wakashu occupied their own place within the social hierarchy and sexual mores of the time. Like in Greece, wakashu were often the companions of older men (though they could be the objects of female suitors, as well), taking part in sexual relationships known as nanshoku. However, unlike in Greece, wakashu was not an expression of male power relationships, nor was it an expression of masculinity or femininity, but rather the essence of youthful beauty. “As a group, they’re very gender-neutral,” says Kamiya.

The exhibition features some 65 woodblock prints, as well as paintings, lacquerwork objects, and personal ornaments. The pieces come from the collection of the Royal Ontario Museum, which boasts one of the most extensive Japanese art collections in North America. The exhibition features several popular types of ukiyo-e, including shunga, or erotic prints, and images of kabuki actors. Of the former, Kamiya says, “In Japan 80 to 90 percent of museums are run by tax money, so they are afraid of showing erotic prints, but there are many in private collections and a lot of interest because of how creatively they depict sexuality.” The latter will explore both onnagata—men who played female roles in the theater and thus had to dress as women—and haori-geisha—geisha who dressed in men’s clothes while entertaining their clients.

Often mistaken for women, wakashu can be identified by their hairstyle and other characteristics. With “A Third Gender,” the group and its complex place in society, which has been largely overlooked, will finally be explored. One piece in the show, Woman and Wakashu (1790s), a work attributed to the Utamaro school, features a youth in the grasp of a woman. Isoda Koryusai’s Samurai Wakashu and Maid, shows the wakashu again as a sexual object. Youth on a Long-Tailed Turtle as Urashima Taro, a 1767 print by Suzuki Harunobu, depicts a young man sailing along the water on the back of a large turtle. His expression is both cocky and wistful, as if to provoke jealousy in anyone younger or older. It reminds the viewer that even now, when traditional notions of gender are being dismantled and sexuality is more about choice than circumstance, there is still one thing one can’t choose to be: young.

By Sarah E. Fensom

Bottled Up Tue, 28 Feb 2017 20:46:16 +0000 Continue reading ]]> Demand for Chinese snuff bottles is strong among Western and Chinese collectors alike.

Snuff Bottle with Playing Boys, 1880–1930

Snuff Bottle with Playing Boys, 1880–1930, Chinese

Featured Images:(Click to Enlarge) Carved agate snuff bottle, 1760-1840 Inside-painted glass snuff bottle, signed Ma Shaoxuan yellow and russet jade snuff bottle Snuff Bottle, 1780–1850 Snuff Bottle with Playing Boys, 1880–1930

Unless you’re born to, or marry, someone who collects them, Chinese snuff bottles enter your life as an unexpected delight. Designed to hold powdered tobacco and rarely measuring more than three inches tall, snuff bottles reflect the universe of Chinese art and culture in miniature, portable form. Think of a material, any material—jade, porcelain, agate, lacquer, glass, turquoise, coral, limestone, horn, jet, cloisonné, rock crystal, metal, stoneware, ivory, quartz, amber, wood, you name it—and some clever, unknown Asian artisan has probably tried to make a snuff bottle out of it, and done a jaw-droppingly fine job, too.

In the past, Westerners often stumbled upon these marvels from China’s Qing dynasty (1644–1912) in tony hotel boutiques and fell in love. Today’s unwitting recruits first see snuff bottles online or in a museum. Their small size makes it easy for curators to plot a comprehensive show in a gallery as long and narrow as a hallway, and that is exactly what those behind the current exhibition “Chinese Snuff Bottles from Southern Californian Collectors” did.

Opened at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) in October and continuing through June 4, “Chinese Snuff Bottles” gathers 200 examples in a space on the second level of the museum’s Hammer Building: 100 on one side and 100 on the other. “The first criterion was quality, the quality of execution and craftsmanship,” explains Stephen Little, LACMA’s Florence and Harry Sloan Curator and Department Head of Chinese Art. “The second was rarity, regardless of material, and the third criterion was variety. We wanted to get as broad a range of materials as possible, but also a range of dates and styles.”

The beautiful little vessels, which the elites of China relied on to signal their status and protect their tobacco stash from the humidity of Beijing, receive the glory that they are due. Highlights of the show include an enamel-on-porcelain bottle shaped like a cicada, an insect that symbolizes rebirth in Chinese culture. It dates from 1796–1850. “It’s an unusual bottle because it’s sculptural,” says Little. “It’s very lifelike, and it’s painted at a time when enamel-on-porcelain was at its height.”

Another snuff bottle standout in the exhibition is a trio of human figures: a Mandarin official, his wife, and his concubine, commissioned sometime between 1790 and 1830 and never parted. The concubine, who wears turquoise-colored clothing, has bound feet; the Mandarin official holds a snuff bottle in his right hand. “They’re a very big deal,” says Clare Chu, a Los Angeles-based dealer who was involved in every stage of the show. “I think there are seven bottles of this type in the world, of which these are three. I think the quality is superb. They would have been made by a very high-level workshop, no doubt.” The exhibition also includes a stunning sapphire-blue glass bottle with white overlay, made circa 1750 to 1850, that depicts a scene from the life of the Tang dynasty poet Meng Haoran, as well as a bottle carved from limestone, with a baby nautilus shell visible at its foot.

The LACMA show coincided with the annual convention of the International Chinese Snuff Bottle Society (ICSBS), held last November in L.A. The ICSBS, which turns 50 next year, is a strong and effective collectors’ organization, not least because it plans its conventions in cities whose museums have snuff bottle collections that it hopes to coax out of storage. “One of our jobs is to show museums they have wonderful bottles, and [convince them to] get them out and keep them out,” says Berthe Ford, president of the ICSBS.

The layout of the LACMA show does not reflect how Westerners collect snuff bottles, however. The bottles appear in substance-based groups to make for a powerful, cohesive display, but Western collectors don’t typically build their collections around individual materials. “Most people collect across the board,” says Ford. “It’s nice to have one of every type, but it’s not necessary. It’s a personal choice.”

Asian collectors, and particularly mainland Chinese collectors, tend to follow different strategies. They are more likely to target bottles made of specific materials: jade, and enamels on glass and metal, to name the most prominent. “I don’t think Asian collectors think of it in the same way,” says Chu. “Many more mainland Chinese come from collecting jade or porcelain, or have snuff bottles as part of a bigger collection. That’s the difference between the East and the West. A lot of Western collectors only collect snuff bottles. They might occasionally have collections of other things, but not necessarily Asian antiques.”

The size of the bottles also appeals to the Chinese for much the same reason that they favor colored diamonds. “They’re mobile, like jewelry,” says Michael C. Hughes, a dealer based in Manhattan. “If another revolution happened, you can get them out easily in a suitcase. You can’t do that with 20 pieces of furniture.”

Mainland Chinese collectors appeared in the snuff bottle world a bit later in the 21st century than they did in other realms of Asian antiques at auction, but they are unquestionably a force. “The mainland Chinese came in with kind of a big bang and bought very strongly at a top level, pricing the Westerners out,” says Margaret Gristina, head of sale in the Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art department at Christie’s New York. “It took a while to feel that they [Westerners] can compete in the market again.”

While the mainland Chinese are present and bidding in snuff bottle auction sale rooms, they do not dominate to the extent that they do in other markets for Asian art and antiques. “Sales which are general works of art, the rest of Chinese art, I see probably 80 percent from mainland China or greater China. With snuff bottles, it’s much less,” says Bruce MacLaren, a Chinese art specialist with Bonhams New York. “There are still a lot of major European collectors, grabbing a bigger market impact. With snuff bottles, it’s probably more like 60 or 65 percent [mainland Chinese]. Still, it’s a lot more than it was 20 years ago.”

Bonhams sold the most valuable snuff bottle at auction in November 2011 in Hong Kong for HK $25.3 million ($3.2 million). Though it went to an Asian collector it embodies much of what makes a snuff bottle desirable to any collector, anywhere in the world. The enamel-on-glass example dates to 1736–60 and has a Qianlong Imperial mark. It also represents a sort of Chinese version of chinoiserie, graced with fanciful images of pretty European women that look a bit off to Western eyes.

“As a bottle, it is the best. Everything is right about it,” Chu says. “It reflects the taste of the Qianlong court and reflects the cross-cultural interest they had at the time. It’s a beautiful thing in every respect, and it has everything going for it.”

During Asia Week in New York this month, both Christie’s and Bonhams will have dedicated auctions of snuff bottles. Bonhams’ Fine Chinese Snuff Bottles sale, scheduled for March 13, includes an 1897 inside-painted bottle by Ding Erzhong, estimated at $25,000–35,000. Inside-painted bottles are an intriguing sub-category within the snuff bottle world. The artists use special tools and techniques to render images on the interiors of the vessels. “Erzhong was a very good painter, appreciated for his skills,” says MacLaren. “If you look at the brush they use to do this, it’s almost like a fish hook. And you have to do it in reverse, painting the last layer first and building it out.”

The Bonhams sale also includes a Suzhou jade snuff bottle ($10,000–15,000) and a yellow and russet jade snuff bottle for the same estimate. Both reflect the value that mainland Chinese customers place on jades of all colors, not just green. Twenty years ago, when Western tastes prevailed, auction estimates for bottles such as these might have been closer to $2,000–3,000. “Jades are always collected because they are semi-precious stones, but the Chinese buyer’s appreciation for jade has brought the prices up quite a bit,” says MacLaren.

Christie’s will host the fourth sale from the Ruth and Carl Barron collection on March 15. The 180 lots include a few inside-painted bottles by the celebrated Beijing School artist Ma Shaoxuan, including one from circa 1900 estimated at $10,000–15,000. Also featured is a substantial, finely carved yellow and russet jade bottle from the Master of the Rocks school, dating to 1730–1830, for the same estimate.

Glass, a favorite of the Barrons, appears at the Christie’s auction in the form of an enameled green-overlay white glass Imperial Qianlong snuff bottle from the Yangzhou school. Estimated at $6,000–8,000, it’s a charming and exceptionally rare piece that almost looks like a work of porcelain. The Barrons’ collection also extends to a piece created between 1860 and 1920 by the Yaji Master of Japan. The slightly oversize (three and three-eighths-inch tall) bottle combines wood and mother-of-pearl insets and carries the same estimate. Also of note is an agate bottle carved between 1760 and 1840 with the image of a horse tied to a hitching post. It represented potential waiting to be unleashed, making the bottle an excellent gift for someone who was prepping for, or soon to face, the legendary civil service exams. It is estimated at $5,000–7,000.

The snuff bottle market has quieted since the November 2011 record, but no one who knows them well doubts that they will keep their power to enchant new collectors. “People do love snuff bottles,” says Little. “They’re one type of Chinese art everyone loves. There’s such a variety of them, and they’re wonderful windows into Chinese culture.”

By Sheila Gibson Stoodley

White Gold Dialogues Thu, 26 May 2016 17:16:14 +0000 Continue reading ]]> An exhibition of Chinese ceramic at the Met calls traditional categories of export and non-export into question.

Garniture (West Lake), Qing dynasty

Garniture (West Lake), Qing dynasty, ca. 1700, porcelain painted with cobalt blue under a transparent glaze, 3 covered jars: height: 41 in. (103.5 cm), 2 vases: height: 37 in. (93 cm);

Featured Images:(Click to Enlarge) Garniture (West Lake), Qing dynasty Set of five dishes in the shape of oxen, Ming dynasty Ewer, Ming dynasty, Jiajing period Ewer, Yuan dynasty, 14th century Crescent-shaped Kendi, Ming dynasty Dish with Crucifixion, Qing dynasty

In the 3rd century B.C., around the time the fires began to burn at the great Chinese porcelain kiln complex at Jingdezhen, logician Gongsun Long created his infamously brain-twisting linguistic puzzle, “A white horse is not a horse.” At first glance the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s current exhibition “Global by Design: Chinese Ceramics from the R. Albuquerque Collection” (through August 7), might leave visitors—especially Western visitors with ideas about Chinese porcelain formed by 19th-century exports—with questions akin to those the “white horse dialogue” poses concerning the nature of the Chinese porcelain objects aimed at European tastes and sensibilities and how to understand them. The exhibition, like much of Chinese philosophical thought, however, proves simply that seeing without presuppositions can open doors to complex and subtle intricacies and hopefully lead to a more complete understanding of the world, the things in it, and how they connect.

Connection is a major theme of “Global by Design” and resonates on multiple levels throughout the exhibition—culturally, historically, aesthetically, and personally. The personal aspect of the show stems from a collaboration between two curators, Jeff Munger of the Department of European Sculpture and Decorative Arts and Denise Patry Leidy, Brooke Russell Astor Curator of Chinese Art. Munger and Leidy have been discussing the idea for the current exhibition since their “days as baby curators at the MFA Boston,” says Leidy. She jokes, “We’re still fighting some of the same fights, we’re having some of the same discussions.”

The next personal connection came in the form of Brazilian collector Dr. R. Albuquerque, whose collection of stunning Chinese ceramics, acquired largely in Europe provided the perfect representative nexus where Munger and Leidy’s respective expertise and passions meet. Albuquerque put it together with his own personal, cultural, and historical hopes for connection in mind as a Brazilian in a former Portuguese colony. “I was actually contacted by the Brazilian owner of this collection and invited to go down and see it,” says Leidy. “When I saw it I realized, this is of great interest to Jeff’s department, as well. So then he and I went to Brazil together and studied it together and started thinking about what we could do that would allow us to tell a story we were each fascinated with in a slightly different way.”

The collection, which is being shown publicly for the first time, provides visitors with a view of 60 rare Chinese ceramics of unparalleled quality and highly unusual character, offering a valuable snapshot of cultural and commercial exchange frozen in time. These porcelain treasures are quite literally the point of exchange, both as artifacts of global trade and as fine and complex works of cultural-aesthetic fusion captured in delicate and beautiful “white gold.” The ceramics, with their give and take (and sometimes head-on collision) of Chinese, European, and Islamic sensibilities and traditions, begin to rewrite the history of global trade, illuminating a level of sophistication not commonly associated with the cultural and economic exchange of the 17th century. “It does make us rethink the whole issue of global trade,” remarks Munger. “You realize how advanced and sophisticated it was centuries ago and that there’s sort of nothing new under the sun. They were remarkably adventurous and commercially driven and savvy.”

In Chinese porcelain Europe found a strange and beautiful emblem of the “Age of Exploration” along with a major technological advancement. True porcelain dates back to the Han dynasty (206 B.C.–220 A.D.), and eventually found its way into the hands and imaginations of Europeans. Before the introduction of porcelain, European dining ware was something much more crude, and the introduction of porcelain presented an attractive and hygienic alternative. Beyond its practical and commercial desirability, however, porcelain seemed to cast a spell over European explorers and merchants, and the Chinese welcomed and exploited the material’s mesmeric hold on foreigners and in some instances tailored objects to foreign tastes. This is what one finds captured in some of the most fascinating objects in “Global By Design.” Munger says, “These are actually incredible. They’re not distinctly European, they’re not distinctly Chinese, but they’re something entirely original and something other. Something shared.”

To today’s viewer the cross-global connections represented in a piece such as an early Qianlong-period tureen (circa 1740) with cover and stand can be truly mind-bending. The rococo shape of the tureen, inspired by a Meissen porcelain model, is clearly European, as are the faces and reserves that decorate the object. The Chinese elements are impossible to ignore, though, from dragon-like scaled feet to pink lotuses, an umbrella-like lid, and a small pagoda detail. Both cultures struggle for the aesthetic and formal upper hand in the delicate material and reach, at the very least, a unique compromise. Each time the visitor turns their attention to the tureen its character shifts from European to Chinese, and back again. In the most exhilarating moments, however, both cultures speak at once in a language both old and new, one of ancient ingenuity and global exploration, and visitors are left to decide whether they are hearing a European tongue with a Chinese accent or vice versa.

The Qing-dynasty figure of a European woman (circa 1735–45) depicting a German Jewish woman in a bonnet and ruffled collar (garments connected with Jewish anti-sumptuary laws), is European in subject but Chinese in material and execution. At the time paintings of foreigners were popular in China, and the figure seems to be an embodiment of this curiosity about other cultures, people, and places. The figure represents cross-cultural psychology and wonder made manifest, and for Western viewers the experience of seeing themselves (or maybe one of their ancestors) re-represented to themselves could be a strange but enlightening one.

The quality and rarity of the pieces on display are remarkable beyond simply anthropological and discursive concerns. The large Kangxi-period five-piece garniture (circa 1700) at the center of the installation is one of only two known existing sets, the other in the Zwinger Museum in Dresden. Impressive in its size and decoration, the scene represented in varying shades of blue underglaze is, according to the show’s catalogue, “typically Chinese” with its “drooping young willow branches” and appears to be based on the “Ten Views of West Lake” theme, whose popularity with Chinese artists dates back to the Southern Song dynasty (1127–1279). The detail and effortless flow of the magnificent pieces that comprise the garniture are a testament to a wholly Chinese art, and it’s easy to see how such stunning objects could lodge themselves in the minds of foreign travelers and spark a hunger for similar objects adorned with European images and words.

The exhibition itself establishes the final, contemporary connection, that of American audiences with such rare and important pieces. The passport of the objects on display has been stamped in many ports and traces a history of global trade and cultural exchange that echoes the connections found within the objects themselves. What better place to end such a long and storied trip than New York and the Metropolitan Museum of Art? When asked how he feels about his collection being shown at the Met, Dr. Albuquerque laughs, smiles, and provides one last tribute to the power of gesture across language and culture, saying in Portuguese that is clear to anyone open to understanding, “Well, The Metropolitan is the Metropolitan.”

By Chris Shields

Floating Earth Tue, 08 Mar 2016 17:50:17 +0000 Continue reading ]]> Contemporary Japanese ceramicists are transforming an ancient art while staying plugged into tradition.

Tokuda Yasokichi IV, Suicho, 2013

Tokuda Yasokichi IV, Suicho, 2013, porcelain with vivid colored glaze, 6 x 21 inches.

Featured Images: (Click to Enlarge) Takeuchi Kozo, Modern Remains, Incus, 2014 Suzuki Sansei, celadon globular jar, circa 1990–95 Tokuda Yasokichi IV, Saiyu Censer, circa 2002 Tashima Etsuko, Cornucopia 09-Y8, 2009 Miyashita Zenji, Yoru to asa no aida: Between Night and Morning, 2012 Fujikasa Satoko, Seraphim, 2015 Tokuda Yasokichi IV, Suicho, 2013

It wafts like smoke, or steam rising from the mouth of a rider-in-waiting on a brutally cold winter morning. It drifts. It undulates. It swirls. It floats like a ballerina in mid-pirouette. It seems light and airy enough to melt away in seconds, and yet it weighs 30 pounds, very much a product of the earth, and it is the product of months of 17-hour days bent over a table, shaping coils of clay by hand and supporting the wet tendrils with armatures.

“It” is Seraphim, a 2015 work of stoneware with white slip-glaze by the 35-year-old Japanese artist Fujikasa Satoko. Manhattan dealer Joan Mirviss’ first encounter with Satoko’s art couldn’t have been more dramatic. She was leading clients on a tour of the Hagi Uragami Museum in Hagi, Japan, in 2011 when a curator invited them to view a collection of pieces by a rising artist to whom they had just given a significant prize. He led the group into a large gallery where 22 of Satoko’s ceramic sculptures were displayed against backdrops of black. “Collectively, truly, there was an exclamation in unison—’Oh My God,’” Mirviss recalls. “Then, ‘Is it for sale? How do we get this?’”

Mirviss became Sakoto’s exclusive agent in the United States and gave her her first solo stateside show last fall. All the pieces in it, Seraphim included, found buyers before they were loaded on a ship for the trip across the Pacific—a first for Mirviss, who has handled contemporary Japanese ceramics since 1984. From April 27 ­­through May 27, she will devote a solo show to Fujino Sachiko, another Japanese artist who builds her alluring flower-like monochromatic works laboriously, by hand. “Neither woman is under any illusion that she’s having a dialogue with the clay,” Mirviss says. “Both these women are sculptors. Not potters, not ceramicists. They are sculptors whose medium is clay.”

Fujikasa and Fujino represent the cutting edge of a tradition with incredibly long and ancient roots; pottery shards discovered near Tokyo and carbon-dated in 1999 were revealed to be 16,000 years old. But old does not equal stale. Contemporary Japanese ceramic artists find inspiration in reinterpreting classic forms, such as the vessels of their culture’s venerated tea ceremony, and they are finding inspiration in simply exploring what clay, and what the alchemy of the kiln, can do. The parade of dazzling delights resulting from their efforts proves that there’s never been a better time to collect.

The Indianapolis Museum of Art is embracing the bounty with Tradition Reborn: Contemporary Japanese Ceramics, which opened in July of last year and will continue through July 17. The 24 works in the exhibition distill the talents of multiple generations of Japanese masters; at least one piece is credited to an 11th-generation potter. It also includes the works of seven artists who have earned the title of Living National Treasure from the Japanese government. Among them is Maeta Akihiro, who begins on the potter’s wheel but relies on his uniquely well-honed senses to hand-finish the shapes of his sleek, faceted white porcelain vessels. “How minimal can you get?” says John Teramoto, the IMA’s curator of Asian art. “I’d call them objects of beauty.” Elias Martin of Gallery FW in Chicago, which has handled Maeta’s work for four years, explains the challenges that he faces with each piece: “His work is incredibly difficult [to create] as he strives to achieve a perfect form every single time. Simply creating a well-balanced form on the potter’s wheel is a feat for a master, but Maeta goes one step further, adding graceful lines to his vessels that challenge tradition and the perception of the viewer.”

Everything chosen for Tradition Reborn was made for a purpose. “The history of Japanese ceramic tradition is one of functional works,” says Teramoto. “The idea of ceramics as sculpture, as abstract, as non-functional, dates from the early 20th century.” That said, the definition of “functional” is fairly loose in certain cases. Teramoto says that Wind, a 2001 piece by the late Miyashita Zenji, is functional “only in the most tortured sense.” Small holes at the top of each side enable it to serve as a vase. Whether you thread a pair of cherry blossoms into those holes or you just stand back and glory in the gradations of Miyashita’s thin layers of colored clay—which call to mind misty predawn landscapes—depends on where you were born and raised. Beatrice Chang, art director of the Dai Ichi Arts gallery in Manhattan, offers a variety of vases and tea vessels, but she suspects that her Western clients place them on shelves and pedestals rather than filling them with flowers or tea. “I think sculpture is a Western notion, not a Japanese notion. That also affects sales. The most popular pieces in Japan are functional wares,” she says, adding, “They [The Japanese] don’t think it is not art because it is to be used.”

Dai Ichi’s Asia Week exhibition, which runs from March 10–19, will feature a cheeky and charming porcelain tea bowl by Ueba Kasumi, a 37-year-old artist based in Kyoto. The tea bowl is one of the most storied and venerated forms in Japanese ceramics; it’s not something you attempt until you’re sure of your skills as a ceramic artist. Ueba’s Tea Bowl, Skull & Poppy is a fresh take. “It’s extremely interesting. Her tea bowl structure is so different. It’s feminine and it’s today. The traditional Japanese arts are all blended in this tea bowl,” Chang says, noting that the bow on its rim is a reference to Harajuku, a vibrant, female-driven subculture of Japanese street fashion, and its golden interior recalls the portable gold-decorated tea room commissioned by the 16th century ruler Toyotomi Hideyoshi. Also on display at the Dai Ichi Arts Asia Week exhibition will be a spectacular vase by Suzuki Goro, who works in the puckish Oribe tradition of Japanese ceramics. He employs the characteristic Oribe green glaze to color a vase that seems as alive as any of the evergreens flourishing near his countryside studio. “Each spike is twisted, rolled, and attached on a cylinder body,” Chang says. “The vase is full of energy. It’s like a big tree growing.”

Mirviss’ Asia Week production, which opens on March 10 and continues through April 15, also spotlights a revered class of Japanese functional objects. “A Palette for Genius: Japanese Water Jars for the Tea Ceremony” features 48 pieces by more than 30 artists who focused their attentions on the mizusashi (water jar). Though not as celebrated as the tea bowl—only one mizusashi is needed for a tea ceremony, and the tea-drinkers do not typically hold it in their hands at any point—the ritual can’t go ahead without one. The range of interpretations on view includes Kawase Shinobu’s 2015 celadon version with a black lacquer lid. The use of celadon glaze, which arose in the Sung Dynasty, and the choice of a black lacquer lid are perfectly historical, but the shape of the mizusashi is not. “If you took away its mouth, it would be very classical,” says Mirviss. “He tweaks tradition by pulling the lip open like a calla lily. It’s beautiful, but it references something classical.” Koike Shôko made her mizusashi in the same year as Kawase, but achieves something far more radical than he does. Her innovative shape reimagines the water jar as a rugged white shell, which is at once a bracingly new idea and clearly in tune with the regard for nature that permeates Japanese culture.

In looking at the most innovative contemporary Japanese ceramics, one fact keeps jumping to the fore: a gratifyingly large number of the finest pieces are the handiwork of women. The shift has been a long time coming, and it did not come easily or smoothly for its postwar pioneers. Tsuji Kyo, who died in 2008 and whose antiquity-inspired creations appear at Dai Ichi Arts, ultimately decided to lop the ‘-ko’ off her given name of Kyoko because the suffix announced her gender to critics and judges. Matsuda Yuriko, born in 1943, faced even more galling prejudice in her mid- 20th century youth. She wasn’t allowed near a wood-fired kiln, lest her womanhood somehow violate its Shinto sanctity. Undaunted, she learned to build her artworks by hand and skirted the taboo by firing them in gas-fueled kilns. From a studio near the quintessential Japanese landmark, Mount Fuji, she captured the mountain’s portrait in a porcelain cone and painted to depict it in fall on one side and spring on the other, with blossom-laden trees jutting off of its sides. Even now, the patriarchy’s barbs poke into the lives of female Japanese ceramic artists; if they are married, they can’t yet legally open a bank account in their maiden names, even if it’s the name that they use professionally. (Mirviss says that Japanese women continue to fight this antiquated state of affairs.)

Mirviss represented “very, very few” women when she began dealing in ceramics more than 30 years ago. Things finally changed in the mid- to late 1990s, when artists such as Tsuji and Matsuda came into their own. Today, Japanese women are legion in the ceramics programs of the country’s art schools, and the gender barrier has turned into a gender advantage. “They’re not the sons of sons. They can do what they want. They don’t have to make tea bowls like Grandpa,” Mirviss says. “Most of the creative work coming out of Japan is largely by women. They are doing things that their male counterparts are not doing.”

Maybe the strongest symbol of how powerfully the world of Japanese contemporary ceramics has been transformed is the tale of the two Tokuda Yasokichis—Tokuda Yasokichi III, the father and Living National Treasure honoree, and Tokuda Yasokichi IV, his daughter and the fourth generation of the family to carry that name. Tokuda Yasokichi III was and still is lauded for his contributions to colored glazes for ceramics, expanding the traditional five-hue palette of his father and grandfather to a spectrum of 250. His work, characterized by applying glazes to plates, jars, and other familiar forms of his design, is available through the San Diego, Calif., gallery Oriental Treasure Box, among others. Two pieces each by the father and the daughter appear as a foursome in Tradition Reborn.

Nana Onishi, founder and owner of the namesake Manhattan gallery, carries the work of both Tokuda Yasokichis. “She grew up in the studio, but he kept the family secrets from her. He didn’t want to pass them to her when he was active,” Onishi says. “She told me she asked him so many times. She wanted to make Tokuda Yasokichi ceramics. He would say, ‘You’re not ready.’ They were always fighting,” she says. “Just before he passed away—he was very sick—he called her to the hospital and told her where he kept those secrets in the house.”

The daughter’s first name had been Junko, but after her father’s death in 2009, she started proceedings to change her name to Tokuda Yasokichi IV, formally claiming the artistic mantle of her forefathers. “She uses the same techniques, but her work is more feminine. She uses more curving lines,” Onishi says. The dealer, who is roughly the same age as Tokuda, has convinced her to try new ways of making art. “I want to treat her work as contemporary art. I asked her for a wall piece, and she did it,” she says. “It’s something her father never did.”

The artwork, a 26-inch-diameter plate dubbed Blood Moon, departed from her father’s style in another obvious way by meditating on a single color, a radiant red. Onishi brought Blood Moon to the 2015 Scope Miami Beach fair, where it stirred interest. “She told me in the beginning that she wasn’t sure,” Onishi says. “She felt more comfortable putting more than three different colors [on it]. I said no, simple is better. Now she’s happy.”

By Sheila Gibson Stoodley