Japanese art history, through the eye of the collector

by Rhiannon Paget

Special To The Japan Times

“Japanese Masterpieces from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston” is not a survey of Japanese art, nor is it representative of the vast holdings of the institution. Rather, it is an exhibition that tells of an understanding of Japanese art formulated in the late 19th century by the collectors and scholars Ernest Fenollosa (1853-1908), William Sturgis Bigelow (1850-1926), and Okakura Tenshin (1862-1913).

Fenollosa and Tenshin in particular, through their teaching, collecting and writing, constructed a history of Japanese art within which certain forms of expression, such as the paintings of the Kano school, were privileged, and others, including literati painting, were dismissed. Their notion of Japanese art persists today, and for this reason, this exhibition offers a fascinating glimpse of Japanese culture.

Two paintings by Kano Hogai (1828-1888) and Hashimoto Gaho (1835-1908) open the exhibition. Both artists were championed by Fenollosa for uniting the noblest aspects of Asian art in their paintings, and thus embodying his vision of a national style of painting for modern Japan.

Hogai’s “Scenes along the River” is a powerful, if grotesque, interpretation of earlier Kano-school landscape painting drawn from China’s Northern Song dynasty. Gaho’s “Benzaiten, the Goddess of Music and Good Fortune,” is an awkward but optimistic revival of Buddhist subject matter. Historically, large Buddhist paintings were displayed in temples to inspire devotion, but the scale of Gaho’s work reflects a new context of viewing art — the exhibition hall, where objects needed to command the audience’s attention.

Split into six sections, the show begins with “Buddhist Deities and Shinto Manifestations,” comprising paintings and sculpture from the 8th to the 14th centuries. Nara’s Todaiji, the source of the 8th-century painting “Shaka, the Historical Buddha,” was one of many temples compelled to sell iconography over the centuries, particularly when Buddhism was persecuted during the early Meiji Era (1868-1912).

“Two Great Handscrolls that Traversed the Ocean” includes “Minister Kibi’s Adventures in China from the 12th century,” the earliest illustrated Japanese hand scroll extant. Humorous and poignant, its subject is the fictional adventures of Kibi no Makibi, an ambassador sent from Nara to Tang China between 752 and 753. After the controversial sale of the scroll in 1932, the export of artworks from Japan without permission from the Ministry of Education was outlawed.

“Stillness and Radiance — Medieval Ink Painting and the Early Kano School” offers paintings that for Fenollosa represented the dawning of a golden age. During the Muromachi Period (1392-1573), Chinese ink painting was imported by monks returning from study abroad. The austerity of works as seen in “Shokei’s Landscape,” inspired by Northern Song sources, resonated with samurai patrons and inspired Hogai and Fenollosa 400 years later.

“Swords and Textiles — the Fascination of Japanese Craftsmanship,” provides the exhibition with an interlude from the traditional category of “fine art” to that of “craft.” Nine blades forged by master swordsmiths between the Heian and Kamakura periods (794-1333) will quicken the breath of viewers, while sumptuous robes for noh theatre and ceremonial wear delight the eye.

“The Blossoming of Early Modern Painting” presents hanging scrolls and folding screens from the first two centuries of the Edo Period (1603-1867). Here, Fenollosa’s biases are most evident; excluded are ukiyo-e (floating world) prints, literati painting and calligraphy, while ukiyo-e painting and the Tosa school are granted only a marginal presence. Hasegawa Tohaku’s (1539-1610) “Dragon and Tiger,” a pair of screens painted in his distinctive, unpolished brushwork, stands out among the restrained Kano school landscapes and garish birds-and-flowers paintings and genre scenes.

Soga Shohaku (1730-1781), one of the great eccentrics of Japanese painting, is granted the entire sixth section, “Soga Shohaku—Eccentric Genius.” Working primarily in ink, Shohaku developed a personal style characterized by sweeping brushwork, dynamic compositions, and humor. Fenollosa and Bigelow wrote little about Shohaku, but his paintings evidently appealed to them as they acquired more than a hundred of his works.

His magnum opus, “Dragon and Clouds,” extends across eight panels, approximating four pairs of sliding doors upon which it was originally mounted. With flared nostrils and rolling eyes, the dragon is a delightfully thrilling beast, all the more dramatic for Shohaku’s energetic handling of the ink, which he drips, splatters, and scrubs onto the paper.

At more than 10 meters wide, this monumental painting is in fact incomplete. According to Anne Nishimura Morse, the MFA senior curator for Japanese Art, there should be another section depicting the dragon’s body. The work found its way into the MFA collection via Bigelow in 1911 in poor condition, and so remained until restoration began in 2006.

So completes an exhibition that could be equally titled “The History of Japanese Art According to Fenollosa, Bigelow, and Okakura.” The impact of these collectors in the establishment of the discourse of Japanese art history is a fascinating lens through which to explore Japanese art.

“Japanese Masterpieces from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston” at the Tokyo National Museum runs till June 10; open 9:30 a.m.-5 p.m. (Sat., Sun. till 6 p.m., Fri. till 8 p.m.). ¥1,500. Closed Mon. www.tnm.jp. The exhibition then moves to the Nagoya-Boston Museum of Fine Arts (June 23-Dec 2012); the Kyushu National Museum (Jan. 1-March 13, 2013); and the Osaka City Museum April 2-June 16, 2013).