Billed as an exhibition of masterpieces from the Cleveland Museum of Art (CMA), “Admired from Afar” is the latest in a number of exhibitions of Japanese art from American collections to be held in Japan. The exhibition comprises 51 paintings and occupies only half of the special exhibition galleries of Tokyo National Museum’s (TNM) Heiseikan. Patient viewers who manage to avoid the worst of the crowds, however, will be much rewarded.

The exhibits, arranged into the categories of devotional art and human figures, flora and fauna, narrative subjects, and landscapes were acquired largely under Sherman Lee (1918-2008), CMA’s director from 1958 to 1983. Lee was exceptionally disciplined as a collector and the exhibition reads in part as homage to his artistic tastes and values.

According to Interim Director Fred Bidwell, “the concept of the ‘masterpiece’ is central to the culture of the Cleveland Museum of Art.””It’s not”, he explains, “a stamp collection where you want one of every year,” but rather reflects “a more refined ideal” wherein everything is of “extremely high quality.”

Indeed, refinement is the prevailing mood. Artworks from the medieval period (1185-1600) and the first half of the Edo Period (1603-1868), conventionally regarded as representing a golden age of Japanese painting, dominate. Among these, the monk-painter Sesson Shukei’s (1504-1589) monochrome “Tiger and Dragon” screens demonstrate the artist’s efforts to personalize an established theme of Zen painting through his naturalistic and gently humorous treatment of the tiger and the curious finger-like projections of the waves.

The earlier generations of the nativist Rinpa School are also well represented. “Ivy Lane,” one of the few surviving works of Fukae Roshu (1699-1757), is a sensory delight. The subject matter refers to an episode of the 10-century anthology of poems and prose “Tales of Ise,” in which the hero and his companions, traveling along a pathway overgrown with ivy, encounter an ascetic who asks them to convey a poem to a lady in Kyoto. The theme originally appeared in handscrolls and albums from the Heian Period (794-1192) and became a favorite among Rinpa artists. Roshu left at least three versions of it to posterity, one of which is held by TNM.

In Roshu’s screen, hills and foreground elements are reduced to flat blocks of color overlaid with the vibrant autumn leaves and flourishes of tarashikomi, a technique by which ink is allowed to bleed decoratively into previously applied pigment or ink that has not yet dried.

Intriguing correspondences between eras and genres are also present. The 16th-century “Four Accomplishments,” a pair of screens by a Kano School artist, is an austere disquisition on literati pastimes of music, go, calligraphy and painting enacted by six dour patriarchs and their acolytes. The theme is parodied dryly by Iwasa Matabei (1578-1650) as the elegant pleasures of an ennui-prone fashionable set.

A few works that flout the canon add further complexity to the curatorial narrative. Watanabe Kazan’s (1793-1841) preparatory drawing of the giant Ozora Buzaemon from 1827 is one of only three Japanese paintings created during or after the early 19th century included. The work is at once a valuable document of Edo Period forays in the natural sciences, a glimpse of its tabloid culture and an unsettling portrayal of humanity.

At more than 2 meters tall, Buzaemon’s extraordinary stature generated an unwelcome celebrity with which he was ill at ease. According to contemporaneous records, Kazan, a keen student of Rangaku (Western Learning), executed the drawings with the aid of a camera obscura, allowing him to create an extremely close likeness. Kazan’s portrait, assembled from dozens of sheets of paper, shows Buzaemon stooping self-consciously, hands and feet awkwardly large, face downcast, uncomfortable but resigned to the artist’s gaze.

Five Buddhist and landscape paintings from the Song (960-1279) and Yuan (1271-1368) dynasties of China (or possibly Goryeo Dynasty Korea, 936-1392) are also integrated into the exhibition’s structure. Mi Youren’s (1074-1151) “Cloudy Mountains” handscroll offers a rare opportunity to examine at close hand the artist’s characteristic and much emulated stippling technique. Four Impressionists and Post-Impressionist works by Berthe Morisot (1841-1895), Claude Monet (1840-1926), Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) and Henri Rousseau (1844-1910) make an unexpected detour before the final section. These nine “special exhibits” presumably allude to the transfer of ideas from continental Asia to Japan, and onward to Europe in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

The exhibition represents one half of an exchange between CMA and TNM. In return, CMA will receive an exhibition of modern Japanese paintings by influential artists such as Taikan Yokoyama (1868-1958), Bakusen Tsuchida (1887-1936), and Ryusei Kishida (1891-1929) drawn from the TNM vaults. Of this agreement, Bidwell is effusive. “Great art”, he states, “develops not only personal inspiration but [also] cultural understanding, and it really does bring people, cultures, cities together and I think this collaboration — partnership — friendship with TNM is ultimately all about that.”

“Admired from Afar: Masterworks of Japanese Painting from the Cleveland Museum of Art” at Tokyo National Museum runs till Feb. 23; open 9:30 a.m.-5 p.m. ¥1,000 (¥1,600 includes admission to the museum’s other exhibition “Engendering Beauty, Preserving Techniques: Artworks by Living National Treasures.” Closed Mon. www.tnm.jp

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.