Japanese Splendor at MFAH
If you were a serious collector of Asian art, post-World War II was the right time to build your collection. With the economy not quite yet recovered from the war, significant historical pieces were relatively affordable, and prominent collectors like John D. Rockefeller III and John and Kimiko Powers were able to amass sprawling collections during the 1960s and '70s.
Though the art was inexpensive, the Powerses, husband-and-wife collectors better known for their taste in Pop Art, collected carefully, consulting scholars and collectors and picking unusual or rare pieces by the masters. And, unlike collectors like Rockefeller, who gathered pieces from across Asia during that time, they focused solely on art from Japan.
Today their collection is considered one of the most important of its kind. At 300 pieces, it's the largest private collection of Japanese art outside of Japan and rivals other U.S. collections at the Smithsonian Institution and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, in breadth and scale. Eighty-five of these pieces are currently on display on the second floor of the Caroline Wiess Law Building in the MFAH exhibition "Unrivalled Splendor." (As timing would have it, you can also head to the Asia Society Texas for a show on John D. Rockefeller III's collection of Asian art.)
The Kimiko and John Powers Collection of Japanese Art is by no means meant to be comprehensive. There are no Japanese prints or netsuke, those miniature sculptures invented in the 17th century, for instance. But it does have remarkable range in date, with pieces from the 8th century, including one of the earliest-known narrative paintings in Asian art (circa 750), up until the 18th; in medium, with paintings on screens and rolls, sculpture and lacquer pieces filling up the hall; and in subject matter, with the works touching on religion, war, nature, and Western influences.
It's no easy task comprehensively laying out a show based on a collection as varied as this one. Based on a catalog by Harvard professor John Rosenfield that is being reprinted for this show, the 85 pieces pulled from the collection are grouped together around eight themes, which vary from religious objects to specific schools of art. As they're laid out in the spacious hall, though, what piece goes with what theme can be unclear at times, and you can feel lost among all that there is to take in. There is much worth noting of artistic and historic importance, though, so here are some key pieces to look out for as you explore this important collection.
Some of the most important and impressive pieces are found right at the start of the exhibition, in a section devoted to major artists during the 18th century from the Tosa and Kano schools. Ito Jakuchu's portrait of Bodhidharma, the father of Zen Buddhism, is a striking, unusual piece. It's full of personality, from the exaggerated facial features to the bold use of color. The only thing elegant about it is the painting itself. The same could be said of Western Hunter by Soga Shohaku. This painting is a wholly unflattering depiction of a European man. His arms and face are distorted, his black eyes and white features ghostly and grotesque. At a time when Japan was becoming more open to trade, it speaks volumes about the artist's thoughts on the West.
Across from our hunter is a radically different piece, remarkably by the same artist. Mount Fuji and Miho no Matsubara is one of several depictions of the iconic mountains by the artist, though this is considered to be the oldest and most dramatic. A gigantic piece, the pair of six-panel folding screens feature an embellished landscape surrounding the famed mountain, rearranged to create the dreamy scene. There's even a rainbow that elegantly crosses three panels. This fleeting feature is a rare depiction in Japanese painting and is one of the reasons the Powerses were drawn to the work in the first place.
Waterfall, by Maruyama Okyo, was another unusual screen painting for the time, as the artist focused less on the waterfall itself, as was customary, and more on the swirling waves it created. There's a great sense of movement and energy in his lines. With its visible black handles against the white screen, the piece is also an astonishing reminder of the purpose of these pieces of art — to serve as sliding-screen room dividers, brought out a few times a year for special occasions. Their rare display certainly helped to maintain the high-quality of these centuries-old works, which look as sharp as the day they were painted. The lighting of the space is also kept noticeably dim to also help preserve the paintings.
Though not as big and commanding as the folding screens, many of the hanging scrolls are impressive and could overwhelm the viewer with the technical skill and emotion. A standout among later Buddhist pieces was Landscape with Distant Mountains, a mid-15th century piece by the Shokei Ten'yu monks. It's a sophisticated landscape painting that does more than convey a place. The placement of the land in the foreground and the mountains some distance behind it, their outline mimicking the silhouette of the land, worked to emphasize the empty space between the two and heightened feelings of loneliness in this isolated place.
Some of the most beautiful landscapes can be found in a section on the 18th-century Scholar-Amateur movement, which valued an expressive style over more academic painting. In A Gentleman Visiting his Friend by Ike no Taiga, for instance, the focus isn't so much on this gentleman but on the immensity and power of nature. The man is but a speck, a near-invisible presence in the corner of the screen.
One of the most notable and striking works in this section isn't even a landscape. Rocks, by the poet Yosa Buson, is a sparse painting of dark rocks and little else. His folding screens seem out of place among the colorful, rolling landscapes of his contemporaries, and even among the whole show. Though made in 1783, Buson's painting is remarkably modern and forward-looking, as if a piece of abstract-expressionism had accidentally found its way in here from another section of the museum.
Unlike Shohaku, some artists during the 18th century were open to their Western visitors, and their pieces show their influence. Shiba Kokan's late 18th-century painting Winter Scene: Water Birds and Willow Tree, for instance, is a fascinating blend of both Dutch and Japanese aesthetics. The oil painting is inspired by the Renaissance concept of uniting science with visual arts — hence the depiction of the birds and the willow tree — while also evoking winter through, as is the Japanese aesthetic, a single motif — the willow, which is devoid of any of its leaves in this chilly winter scene.
As you near the end of the exhibition's masterpieces, you're treated to some more remarkable works, these from the Tosa and Kano schools and dating to the late 18th century. Some of the largest, most striking pieces can be found here, chief among them Tigers and Dragons by Kano Tan'yu. Originally two sets of sliding screens, the sets have been remounted as hanging scrolls and are displayed across from each other. One is of two tigers (the yin in Eastern thought), the other a dragon (the yang). They have very expressive, almost human-like faces; they're so full of familiar emotion. And the animals are in the middle of such dynamic movement, they look as if they'll leap right off the page. They're immense, impressive pieces to take in right before you head back into bright lights. Unrivaled splendor indeed.
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