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Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Displays Zen Paintings and Calligraphies From the Gitter-Yellen Collection
Hotei Wakes from a Nap, Sengai Gibon (1750–1837), Japanese, Edo period, 19th century. Hanging scroll; ink on paper, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Gitter-Yelen Collection. Courtesy, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

BOSTON, MA.- The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA), presents Zen Mind/Zen Brush: Japanese Ink Paintings From The Gitter-Yelen Collection, featuring paintings and calligraphies by monks from the 18th century to the present day, who have expressed their spirituality through their art. Included in the exhibition are 35 hanging scrolls and screens from the collection of Kurt Gitter and Alice Yelen, who have the most extensive collection of Zen artwork outside of Japan. Curated by Anne Nishimura Morse (the MFA’s William and Helen Pounds Senior Curator of Japanese Art), Zen Mind/Zen Brush will be on view in the Museum’s second floor Japanese galleries, through January 4, 2009.

New Orleans residents Kurt Gitter and Alice Yelen were among the first Westerners to collect later Zen paintings. They began acquiring paintings and calligraphies by Zen monks long before their importance was recognized in Japan. Their collection began in 1965 when Gitter was stationed in Kyushu for two years as a United States Air Force flight surgeon. While there, he came across Zen paintings by monk Sengai Gibon (1750-1837) who had served in a nearby temple and was captivated by the brushwork. Zen Mind/Zen Brush reflects their passions for Japanese art and self-taught art from the 18th to the 20th centuries.

“Kurt Gitter and Alice Yelen have created a superb collection of Zen paintings that give insight into the rich history and artistry of the Zen tradition,” said Malcolm Rogers, Ann and Graham Gund Director of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. “Theirs is the largest holding of Zen paintings in the United States, and we are delighted that they are sharing these works with Boston, enlightening new audiences.”

Zen was first introduced to Japan in the late twelfth century. Painting and calligraphy were practiced at newly established monasteries which functioned not only as important religious institutions but also as cultural centers. During the sixteenth century a spiritual malaise gradually set in, but the Zen sect was revived and popularized by monks such as Hakuin Ekaku (1685-1768) and Sengai during the 18th and 19th centuries. Critical to their efforts was the production of paintings. These leaders incorporated bold displays of ink with individualistic brushwork giving traditional themes, such as the enso (circle of enlightenment), new forms, and often adding humor, which can be seen in Sengai’s rendition of Hotei Wakes from a Nap. The scroll captures the amusing nature of the big-bellied deity, resting on his mendicant’s sack.

Hakuin devised the famous illogical question, “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” to challenge his students in their quest for enlightenment. To aid his efforts in propagating Buddhism among the populace, he also created highly inventive paintings—some with images of Bodhidharma, the first patriarch of the Zen sect, or of the Seven Gods of Good Fortune. In the powerful painting Two Blind Men Crossing a Log Bridge, Hakuin depicts two figures feeling their way across a bridge over a river chasm that can be interpreted as a poignant analogy to the unenlightened seeking understanding. In order to make his religious teaching more relevant to his students, he depicted a steep ravine that was an actual site near his own rural temple of Shōin-ji at the top of the Izu peninsula in eastern Japan.

Zen Mind/Zen Brush explores the legacy of Hakuin and generations of his disciples, whose works display the distinctive, fluid brushstrokes of Zen painting and calligraphy while transmitting the teachings through images of deities and Zen monks.

During Zen Mind/Zen Brush, the Museum will also feature Brush with Enlightenment: Zen Calligraphy from the Collection of Sylvan Barnet and William Burto featuring seven Japanese hanging-scrolls created between the 14th and 18th centuries. The first gallery of the exhibition includes scrolls created by monks associated with Nanzen-ji and Shōkoku-ji, two temples in Kyoto that were part of a network of Zen centers that were administered by Japan’s military authorities. The works in the adjoining gallery are by monks affiliated with Daitoku-ji, a Zen complex in Kyoto that maintained its independence.

Sylvan Barnet and William Burto have been collecting Japanese calligraphy for more than thirty years. An exhibition organized by the MFA in 1970, piqued their interest in bokuseki (“ink traces”), the dynamic lines of Chinese characters inscribed by early Zen masters. Since that time they have formed the most important collection of these works in the West.

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