Japan’s celebrated Edo Period painters: Having the good fortune to see all that is Gitter’s

by Robert Yellin

The first time I met renowned Japanese art collector Dr. Kurt Gitter was at an Asian art conference in New York in 2001, where he was on a discussion panel on Japanese art. An audience member asked Gitter, “Sir, since you and others have passionately collected antique Japanese works for decades and since a new collector is hard pressed to find fine examples, if you were a new collector in Japanese art today, what would you collect?”

Without hesitation Gitter replied “Easy, that would be contemporary Japanese ceramic art; the variety, quality and cost are there for any collector.”

Today Gitter’s Japanese ceramic collection is renowned, yet what Gitter had collected for decades before — starting in the early 1960s when he was stationed here as an eye surgeon for the U.S. Air Force — were works he hardly understood cerebrally, yet they touched his senses to the core: Zen hanging scrolls and paintings. As in the the famous koan, he heard “the sound of one hand clapping,” and his resulting renowned painting collection is now showing at the Shizuoka Prefectural Museum of Art until March 27, before moving on to Fukushima Prefectural Museum of Arts from June 11 to July 24 and finishing at The Museum of Kyoto from Sept. 3 to Oct. 16.

In a recent e-mail interview, Gitter expressed his thoughts and anecdotes on some of the 107 works on display, which not only show powerful examples of Zen paintings, but also works divided under the titles of “Jakuchu and Japanese Eccentricity,” “The Many Colors of Rinpa,” “A Gaze Upon Nature,” “Ideal Landscapes,” and “Variety in Everyday Life.”

On a dazzling pair of screens that grace the cover of the exhibition catalog, Gitter commented that, “One of the highlights of the exhibition is a large pair of six-panel folding screens by Tani Buncho (1763-1840) that depict a mountain-river boat scene in ink on gold leaf.” Gitter noted that, “They are among my favorite screens for their vibrant brush stroke of landscape and were acquired from a prominent Kyoto dealer who had in turn acquired them from the late Harry Packard, whose famous collection now resides at the MET in New York City.”

The screens were painted in 1828, when Tani was 66 years old, and are considered one of his masterpieces.

Another artist whom Gitter is extremely fond of is Ito Jakuchu (1716-1800). Gitter commented, “Among my favorite eccentric artists is Jakuchu, whose work I prefer in sumi ink although his depictions in color of birds, fish etc are magnificent and highly regarded throughout Japan and the world.

“Ito’s hanging scroll depicting Kanzan and Jittoku (Zen figures) represents a unique depiction of these two immortal characters: It is both an eccentric work of art and a wonderful Zenga (style of calligraphy and painting) albeit painted by Jakuchu. I purchased this piece in 1982 from Nat Hammer, an old friend and one of the important early New York dealers in Asian art in the 1960 and ’70s.”

Another fabulous work in the exhibit is a pair of landscape hanging scrolls by another favorite of Gitter’s, Kameda Bosai (1752-1826), who often signed his works “‘copied by the peacefully drunken one.”

“Kameda painted this work in 1810 when he was 58 years old, and these are the largest of his landscapes I have ever seen; I bought them from a prominent Kyoto dealer in 2008,” commented Gitter.

From closer to home in Shizuoka is the work of beloved Zen monk Hakuin Ekaku (1685-1768). Born in Hara in Numazu, Hakuin was a major figure in Zen history who revived the Rinzai sect of Zen and went on to brush inspired works that have been cherished throughout the centuries. In the Gitter collection Hakuin’s work is featured by far the most with a total of 36 paintings.

Returning to Shizuoka after who knows how long are nine Hakuin paintings, including one of his famed “Daruma” that dates to the Horeki era (1751-64) of the Edo Period. The hanging scroll depicting the Buddhist monk Daruma with huge eyes looking skyward and a wispy beard has Hakuin’s oft-quoted verse written above the face, declaring “See into your nature and become Buddha!” If only it were so easy.

Also superb and whimsical is Hakuin’s “Seven Gods of Good Fortune,” who are seen partying down with Shoki the demon-slayer. Hotei (god of happiness and fortune) bangs a drum (his bag of fortunes) while Shoki stands center, eyes turned upward with his beard and hair flying about. It’s a classic Hakuin and rare in the fact it was painted in color. The inscription reads “One who is loyal to his lord and filial to his parents will receive my straw raincoat, hat, magic mallet and bag,” meaning the loyal will receive all good fortune.

The Gitter-Yelen Collection offers a rare opportunity to see beauty and nature as painted by some of Japan’s most celebrated painters of the last 300 years, and that in and of itself is good enough fortune for any viewer.

“Edo Period Paintings from the Gitter-Yelen Collection” at Shizuoka Prefectural Museum of Art runs till March 27; admission ¥1,000; open 10 a.m.-5:30 p.m., closed Mon. For more information, visit www.spmoa.shizuoka. shizuoka.jp. The Gitter-Yelen Collection of New Orleans can also be seen online at www.manyoancollection.org