TOKYO.- Known as a Mecca for Asian art, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston has been collecting Japanese art since the days of Ernest Fenollosa and Okakura Tenshin, and is now said to be home to over 100,000 works. In terms of both quality and quantity, this collection is one of the best in the world and contains many superlative artworks indispensable for an understanding of Japanese art. This exhibition provides an opportunity to view masterpieces from this collection, with a focus on paintings, including several from the Bigelow Collection.
The Birth of the Collection
The Japanese art collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, first took shape through the contributions of two Bostonians, Ernest Francisco Fenollosa (18531908) and William Sturgis Bigelow (18501926), who came to Japan in quick succession in the late 1870s and 1880s. During their time in Japan, they conducted surveys of Japanese antiquities and acquired art with intense energy. Their collections encompassed a broad range of periods and genres, from eighth-century Buddhist images to paintings by medieval, early modern, and even Meiji-era artists, as well as ukiyo-e prints, Buddhist sculptures, swords, textiles, and more. After returning to the United States, Fenollosa became the curator of Japanese art and Bigelow a trustee of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and their expansive collections were gifted to the museum.
In 1904, Okakura Kakuzo (Tenshin, 18631913), who had trained under Fenollosa, took a position at the museum, where he worked tirelessly to expand the Asian art collections as head of the Chinese and Japanese Art department.
Through the efforts of these three figuresFenollosa, Bigelow, and Okakuraa foundation was built for the Museum of Fine Arts collection, upon which it would rise to become what is now considered the premier collection of Japanese art in the world.
Buddhist Deities and Shinto Manifestations
The Buddhist art collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, is widely celebrated for its preeminent quality among Western collections. There are 260 of Buddhist paintingsincluding syncretic imagescomprised of a total of 326 individual objects and ranging from the Nara period to the Meiji era, with works from the Bigelow and Fenollosa-Weld collections at their core. An additional eighty-four Buddhist and Shinto sculptures comprised of ninety-seven individual objects date from the Asuka period to the Meiji era and came to the museum primarily from the Bigelow collection and donor gifts. Included among both the paintings and sculptures are major works obtained for the museum by Okakura Kakuzo through funds dedicated specifically for the acquisition of Chinese and Japanese art.
The stunning discernment not only of Okakura, but also of Bostonians Bigelow and Fenollosa is evident in this exceptional selection of masterpieces, many of which, had they remained in Japan, would surely have merited designation as National Treasures or Important Cultural Properties.
This section of the exhibition presents seventeen Buddhist paintings, including Shaka, the Historical Buddha, Preaching on Vulture Peak (Hokkedo konpon mandara, No. 5), and four sculptures, including the standing Miroku, the Bodhisattva of the Future (No. 23) by Kaikei.
Two Great Handscrolls that Traversed the Ocean
Two particularly outstanding works in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts collection are the handscrolls of Minister Kibis Adventures in China (No. 26), which offer a vivid and at times humorous depiction of the activities of Kibi no Makibi, a Japanese envoy to Tang China, and the Illustrated Scrolls of the Events of the Heiji Era (Heiji monogatari emaki) (No. 27), which illustrates scenes from the twelfth-century Heiji Rebellion through a rich and carefully calculated pictorial composition.
Documentation in ancient records such as the Kanmon nikki traces the provenance of these works through the care and protection of emperors and noble families, shrines and temples, until, like so many other works of art, they were released onto the art market amidst the social upheaval brought about by the fall of the shogunal government at the end of the Edo period. Whether due to the effects of the Great Kanto earthquake in 1923, global depression, or some other unknown reason, the scrolls of Minister Kibis Adventures in China went without a buyer for nine years. Eventually, the Events of the Heiji Era and Minister Kibis Adventures in China scrolls made their way across the ocean after being discovered by Fenollosa and Tomita Kojiro (18901976) respectively. Considering how many works of painting were divided up and scattered during the turbulent times of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, it is most fortunate that these handscrolls have thus been preserved intact.
Stillness and RadianceMedieval Ink Painting and the Early Kano School
Ink painting was introduced to Japan in the latter part of the Kamakura period, primarily through the mediation of Zen monks who conducted exchange with China in various forms. From that time until the early Muromachi period, the majority of Japanese ink paintings were produced by monk painters affiliated with Zen temples, who used Chinese Song- and Yuan-dynasty ink paintings as models. However, the Onin War (146777) spurred a gradual transfer of the domain of ink painting from Zen monks to professional painters led by the Kano school. Meanwhile, in addition to ink painting, early Kano school works evolved in diverse styles incorporating gold-ground materials, gold clouds, and even vivid colors.
Almost all of the medieval ink paintings and early Kano school works in the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, were amassed by Fenollosa and Bigelow and accessioned by the museum in 1911. Medieval ink paintings in this exhibition include Kannon, the Bodhisattva of Compassion (No. 28), a masterpiece of ink painting from the early stage of development, and the exceptional Landscape (No. 33) produced by the Zen painter Shokei based on a Song-dynasty model, as well as masterful early Kano school paintings ranging from those of Motonobu, who established the foundation for the Kano school, to ones by Shoei.
The Blossoming of Early Modern Painting
The Azuchi-Momoyama period was a golden age of painting that successively witnessed the appearance of Kano Eitoku (154390) and other artists of particular talent. The Kano, Hasegawa, Unkoku, Soga, and other Chinese-style painting schools competed to produce the most and the best large-scale screen and panel paintings. Their powerful expressions in ink convey a sense of the heroic ambition of the warring-states generals.
In the Edo period, Kano Tanyu (160274), who became an official painter to the Tokugawa shogunate, established a refined and graceful style that was to have a significant impact on the entire artistic world. At the same time, there was also a branch of Kano artists who remained in Kyoto and preserved a unique and richly decorative style all their own. On the other hand, the Tosa school, which specialized in Japanese-style Yamato-e painting and had declined in prominence in the Azuchi-Momoyama period, was restored to a central position of authority when Tosa Mitsuoki (161791) was appointed head of the imperial painting bureau. Artists with roots in the Kyoto merchant class were also active, including Tawaraya Sotatsu, who opened up a path to a new world of decorative beauty, and Ogata Korin (16581716), who followed in the footsteps of Sotatsus creative style and inaugurated the Rinpa school.
This section of the exhibition is comprised of representative works from these major schools of painting dating from the Azuchi-Momoyama to the early Edo periods, as well as genre paintings reflecting an interest in exoticism and a hedonism of the age, and works by Ito Jakuchu (17161800), who is renowned today as an eccentric painter. This overview of early modern painting traditions from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, allows us to appreciate fully the superior quality of its Japanese art collection, which is considered unparalleled outside of Japan.
Soga ShohakuEccentric Genius
It is often said that one cannot speak of Japanese art without seeing the Boston collection. Among the more than 100,000 works that make up this outstanding collection, the works of Soga Shohaku (173081) command a particularly prominent position.
At present, the museum owns forty-one paintings (or, when counting each screen or scroll as a single piece, a total of fifty-nine objects) by Shohaku or in his style, making this a Shohaku collection the likes of which is unrivaled. Before the 1930s, when a large number of works were deaccessioned and replaced in an effort to further enrich the Asian art collection, the museum held almost twice as many works attributed to Shohaku. The eleven works exhibited here were all acquired by Bigelow and Fenollosa, and one cannot but be amazed by the discerning eye of these two collectors who recognized the appeal of Shohakus work long before his relatively recent rise to distinction here in Japan.
Shohakus frank and impulsive style seems almost to strike the painting surface with a profusion of energy, while at the same time being imbued with a magical, whimsical quality. Known for his eccentric words and actions, Shohaku displays a wonderful combination of a cynical gaze with a tender humor in his work. This selection spans from his very earliest period to his final years. Indeed, one cannot speak of Shohaku without seeing the Boston collection.
Swords and TextilesThe Fascination of Japanese Craftsmanship
The Japanese collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, reflects Bigelow and Fenollosas comprehensive attitude toward collecting based on a systematic historical approach. Consequently, it is interesting that decorative and industrial art objects were included among their acquisitions.
In Meiji-era Japan, ceramics, lacquerwares, and metalwork were being produced in large quantities for export to the West, and such works in large part supported the economy of Japan as a modern nation-state. Furthermore, the production of these types of works was possible because of the high level of technical proficiency that had been cultivated in these areas through the Edo period.
The swords and textiles exhibited here represent forms of handcraft that were not exported as energetically as the abovementioned genres. In particular, the very reason for the existence of swords, which had been the symbol of the samurai warrior, had been deeply shaken by the dissolution of the samurai government that had endured for so long. However, swordmaking and textile arts were both born out of the exceptional technical proficiency cultivated by the Japanese, and in that sense duly represented the technical strength of decorative arts and craft in Japan.
The decorative art collections of Bigelow and the others reveal their recognition of these objects as an important component in telling the story of the history and culture of Japan. Furthermore, the fact that these collectors demonstrated an interest even in swords, which domestically within Japan were in a state of crisis as an art form, reveals the objectivity of their evaluation of Japans decorative arts.