Every culture treasures its arts, and art museums are at the forefront of art preservation, engaging curators and specialists to ensure works remain as faithful to the originals as possible.
Japan, however, has a long cultural and philosophical tradition that runs counter to the contemporary preservation movement; one which values innovation embodied by the terms kufū, the practice of skillfully creating through innovation, and kaihen, the transformation of objects.
Examples of such practices in the arts stretch back to the Heian Period (794-1185), supported by the philosophy that life is in flux, and that the environment we create is constantly subject to reinterpretation and reinvention. Aesthetic practices of later periods, including the Momoyama (1573-1615), and early Edo (1615-1868) reinforce this approach, incorporating values such as sabi, the appreciation of objects made more beautiful through the process of aging.
The Nezu Museum’s special exhibition, “Transforming Masterpieces: A Collector’s Love Seen in Art” explores this previously unexamined phenomenon — the transformation of art — showcasing the importance of the practice throughout Japanese history. The exhibition’s approximately 100 works illustrate the endless possibilities of applying the principles of kufū and kaihen to existing artwork.
There are fascinating insights into the provenance of such art, including examples by tea masters and military generals who boldly altered art in their possession. Their work resulted in startling transformations as segments were cut out of paintings, handscrolls, and works of calligraphy, and broken tea bowls and highly prized pieces of ceramic were reassembled. The results demonstrate aesthetic enhancements that went well beyond the original artists’ intents.
Warlords applied the process to express their sophistication and power as art collectors. As warrior-class leaders strove to achieve greater cultural legitimacy, the lessons they learned from tea masters about challenging conventions helped them to become true innovators as well.
One of the highlights of the exhibition is “Fishing Village at Sunset,” a hanging scroll cut and remounted by Ashikaga Yoshimitsu (1358-1408), the third shogun of the Muromachi Period (1392-1573). Yoshimitsu had “Eight Views of the Xiao and Xiang Rivers,” the approximately 8-meter long 13th-century landscape handscroll by the Chinese Zen Buddhist monk Muqi Fachang, cut into eight segments, each mounted as a hanging scroll. Muqi’s original monochrome ink scroll portrayed eight beautiful river landscapes. Yoshimitsu was among the first to recycle and reinterpret famed art, a practice that came into vogue in Japan in the 14th century.
By creating hanging scrolls, viewers are able to gaze directly at the work, rather than having to sit on the floor to view long handscrolls. Such mounted scrolls were better suited to the new social practices of the warrior elite, who enjoyed inviting audiences into large reception rooms where visitors could simultaneously view multiple hanging scrolls. The ubiquitous tokonoma (alcove) of the Momoyama Period was the result of an architectural transformation that paralleled these new practices of art display.
Another genre in which transformation was taking place was the remodeling of broken or damaged tea bowls and pieces of porcelain using a practice from the early 17th century known as yobitsugi. As with the reinvention of handscroll sections as hanging art, the transformation of these fine pottery pieces elevated the status of the works of art.
A couple of exquisite yobitsugi tea bowls, including the renowned “Momo” bowl, are on display, each made from the fragments of precious old bowls. “Momo” was pieced together in 1936 using shards from 16th-century white Shino tea bowls to commemorate the 90th birthday of Masuda Donno (1848-1938), a Meiji Era (1868-1912) industrialist. The bowl reflects the painstaking process of assembling the unrelated shards into a product of even thickness and curvature, and incredibly uniform surface coloration. The result, enhanced by the gold paste used to join the shards, is a creative marvel that goes beyond the intent of each piece’s original design.
Another example is the “Kimamori” tea bowl, created for the tea master Sen-no-Rikyu (1522-1591) by Chojiro (1516-1592), the first-generation Raku-ware master. Rikyu gave the bowl its name “Kimamori,” which refers to the tradition of leaving a single persimmon on a tree as a “guardian” to ensure another good harvest, because of its bright-red color. After the bowl’s destruction in the fire following the Great Kanto earthquake of 1923 it was recreated in 1934 by the 13th-generation Raku pottery master Seinyu (1887-1944). He incorporated the surviving fragment, recovered from the ashes, into a new bowl that miraculously re-imagined the form of the original.
All these artworks are prime examples of a cultural tradition that continues today, with artisans and collectors reviving and re-envisioning art objects and discarded fragments, giving them new lives.
“Transforming Masterpieces: A Collector’s Love Seen in Art” at the Nezu Museum runs till Nov. 3; open 10 a.m.-5 p.m. ¥1,200. Closed Mon. www.nezu-muse.or.jp