LUGANO, SWITZERLAND – I first met Jeffrey Montgomery one evening in 1990. A dinner companion had asked me to go to the new San Gottardo Bank building, designed by celebrated local architect Mario Botta, in Lugano to see an exhibition of Japanese mingei (folk crafts). Having just driven over the mountains from Lake Maggiore on a hot summer afternoon, I had the cool refreshments of an Italian restaurant far more in mind than art, and I have to confess that I was somewhat less than enthusiastic. Fortunately, social obligation prevailed, and I was rewarded with a selection of Japanese antique crafts of a quality I had seen previously only at The Japan Folk Crafts Museum in Tokyo and the Kurashiki Museum of Folk Craft. I also met their owner, Jeffrey Montgomery.
Since that auspicious encounter, I’ve developed a close friendship with Montgomery and his wife, Mariangela. Over the past three decades my own involvement with the growth of the collection has increased with sourcing new acquisitions, preparing exhibitions and writing. Today the Montgomery collection surpasses 800 items including around 300 ceramics, some 140 textiles and about 135 sculptures (from masks to images of Shinto deities), together with numerous lacquerware objects, paintings and traditional household furnishings.
So how did an American become a mingei collector in Switzerland? Montgomery says he first studied Italian in Perugia and Florence before moving to Lugano in 1969. After working briefly for a company trading in watches, he established a shop in a medieval building in the Old Town to sell objects appealing to his own sense of design and artistic merit. He bought ceramics and other applied arts from craftsmen all over Europe and, from time to time in the course of his searches, he came across Japanese antiques appearing on the market from families that had lived in Japan during the Meiji Era (1868-1912) and the years before World War II.
Many pieces that he owns are of a quality rarely seen today even in Japan, and some are unique. Particularly notable are the expressive carved-wood wolves tentatively dated to the Muromachi Period (1392-1573). To my knowledge, no other example can be found in any museum or publication. His Okinawan lacquer works are also especially rare. He discovered them in collections that had been in the West since long before World War II and thus had been spared the terrible destruction in those islands. Montgomery says that while he sold European crafts in his shop he could not bear parting with the mingei pieces, and that is how his collection took shape. After a year or two he found that studying and hunting for new objects left little time for business, so he closed his shop to pursue collecting full time.
While Montgomery had begun gathering mingei mainly for his own enjoyment — a passion that continues today — the previously mentioned exhibition at the San Gottardo Bank drew international awareness. Since then, parts of the collection have been the subject of more than 30 exhibitions at venues such as the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, the Museum Bellerive in Zurich, the Musee des Arts Asiatiques in Nice and the Japan Society Gallery in New York. In all these international locations, the exhibitions have been well-attended by the public and favorably reviewed by critics. In addition, the collection has been publicized in numerous books and catalogues with essays by noted scholars, providing some of the best reference works available in European languages. In the words of Rupert Faulkner, senior curator in the Victoria and Albert Museum’s Asian Art Department, “The collection of Jeffrey Montgomery is widely acknowledged as the finest assemblage of Japanese folk crafts outside Japan.”
It is interesting to wonder just what aspect of Japanese mingei resonates in the perception of Western viewers, particularly since many of the objects are peculiar to an almost-vanished, traditional Japanese lifestyle that is largely unfamiliar to Europeans and Americans. One answer is that these crafts speak directly from the heart of their creator to that of the viewer, with neither the impediment of language nor the intellectual conundrums that leave people shaking their heads at so much contemporary art. With mingei it is easy to see the beauty of forms and textures and to understand that these are things that would be very pleasant and satisfying to live with. Montgomery recognized this ineffable beauty and used his knowledge to acquire extraordinary objects in Europe and America at a time when there was little interest or competition from other buyers. Today, the collection is well-known among international dealers, and Montgomery continues to add to it from time to time when mingei pieces appearing on the market meet his high standards of connoisseurship.
This is the second installment in a four-part series on Jeffrey Montgomery’s mingei folk crafts collection.