Art

Kazuo Okada’s all-star cast of Asian art

by Jeff Michael

Contributing Writer

When the Okada Museum of Art, in the popular getaway of Hakone, opened its doors in 2013, successful businessman Kazuo Okada brought to fruition his long-held plan to build a museum brimming with quality Asian artworks.

This year, the museum is holding its “Fifth Anniversary Exhibition All-Stars of the Okada Collection,” highlighting its most prized acquisitions.

The showcase, which spans four floors of the museum, opens with a selection of large flasks, jars and other ceramics from Qing and Ming dynasty China, mostly in underglaze blue on white. There are also two large dishes, each with a blue dragon on a rarely seen bright yellow overglaze enamel, a color that was reserved for the exclusive use of the emperor. The dragons are depicted head-on instead of the more usual sideways view, another privilege reserved for the emperor, not to be reproduced elsewhere, under pain of death. Nowhere else in the world but here can visitors see two of these rare plates together.

While the first two floors fully utilize the width of the building with an open plan, the third and fourth floors are divided into several narrower spaces. One of these on the third floor gleams in gold leaf, where “Chrysanthemums,” a pair of screens by Ogata Korin (1658-1716), uses layers of white pigment to build up the volume of the flowers’ petals against a background of gold. Korin lends the “rin” of his name to the highly decorative Rinpa school of painting, although he was more the consolidator of the school’s style, which was established half a century earlier by Honami Koetsu (1558-1637) and Tawaraya Sotatsu (circa 1570-1640).

It was a Korin painting, “Ducks and Snow-Covered Pine Trees” (early 18th century), that inspired Okada to begin collecting art. Korin’s depiction of ducks by a pond follows the innovations of Rinpa, with its bold composition and simple elegance. One effective touch is the suggestion of ripples on the pond’s surface, achieved by the artist leaving unpainted wavy lines in the water’s deep blue, revealing the gold layer underneath.

Another highlight of the exhibition is the rediscovered “Fukagawa in the Snow” (circa 1802-06), painted by Kitagawa Utamaro (1753-1806), an artist better known for his prints, toward the end of his life. A detailed tableaux depicting courtesans serving drinks and entertaining clients, the work, one part of a triptych, dropped out of public view after being auctioned off over half a century ago. It only reemerged earlier this decade.

As the title of the exhibition suggests, the Okada collection also boasts masterpieces by Ito Jakuchu (1716-1800) and Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849), as well as those by Ike no Taiga (1723-76), Suzuki Kiitsu (1761-1858), Tani Buncho (1763-1840), Kano Motonobu (1476-1559) and many more. One particularly impressive piece worth looking out for is the 9-meter long “Mt Fuji” (1926) by Yokoyama Taikan (1868-1958), who created over 1,000 depictions of the mountain.

As part of the anniversary celebrations, the museum has also organized related events, which recently included a live painting session by Kotaro Fukui, the artist behind “Wind / Time,” a huge mural on the facade of the museum. “Wind / Time” is based on the “Wind God and Thunder God” screens by Tawaraya Sotatsu (1570-c. 1640), and for the live painting event, Fukui, was inspired by the dragon motif of the Ming dynasty plates mentioned earlier. In just 15 minutes, Fukui transformed a few drops of ink into a fierce dragon staring straight ahead at onlookers — thankfully he wasn’t executed for his troubles.

The Okada Museum of Art’s lineup of masterpieces and related events make for an impressive public showing of art that was once reserved for the emperors and the privileged.

“Fifth Anniversary Exhibition All-Stars of the Okada Collection: Masterworks of Korin, Jakuchu, Hokusai, Ru Ware Kilns” at the Okada Museum of Art runs until March 30; ¥2,800. For more information, visit www.okada-museum.com.