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Shōhaku's masterpiece, Dragon and Clouds, returns to Boston following tour of Japan
Soga Shôhaku, Dragon and Clouds, Edo period, 1763. Fusuma; ink on paper. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. William Sturgis Bigelow Collection. Photo © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

BOSTON, MASS.- The monumental painting Dragon and Clouds (1763), by the eccentric Japanese artist Soga Shōhaku (1730-1781), returned to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, after touring Japan as part of an exhibition of MFA Japanese masterpieces. The 35-foot-long work depicts a dragon swooping down through whirls of clouds and swishing its scaly tail in rich shades of ink. The work, comprised of eight paintings on sliding doors (fusuma), underwent major conservation treatment that spanned five years and involved five conservators. Return of the Dragon: Shōhaku’s Dragon and Clouds, being held in the MFA’s Asian Paintings Gallery from March 21–July 6, 2014, displays four works by Shōhaku, including another set of sliding doors, Hawk (circa 1763), and two hanging scrolls from the late 1770s. Widely known for its unparalleled collection of over 20 works by Shōhaku—a native of Kyoto known for his unconventional techniques and irreverent humor—the MFA also celebrates the 55th anniversary of the Kyoto-Boston sister city relationship with the exhibition.

“Shōhaku presents one of the most popular subjects of Japanese ink painting in a manner that on one hand makes reference to revered images from the past, but on the other displays his unconventional use of brush and ink,” said Anne Nishimura Morse, William and Helen Pounds Senior Curator of Japanese Art at the MFA. “We’re thrilled to have this work on view in Boston, displaying this stunning piece closer to the way the artist intended.”

Shōhaku’s prolific career coincided with a remarkable time of creativity in Japanese Art—the Edo Period—when eccentricity enhanced rather than hindered a painter’s reputation. Working almost exclusively in monochrome ink, Shōhaku portrayed idiosyncratic figures from traditional Buddhist and Taoist lore such as monks, recluses, dragons and birds. The artist brought this dynamism to the execution of Dragon and Clouds, as seen in the forceful gestural brushstrokes that sweep across the vast surface of the painting. In recent decades, as Shōhaku’s work has gained wide acclaim in Japan and abroad, the painter has served as inspiration for a number of contemporary artists, such as Yokoo Tadanori and Murakami Takashi.

When Dragon and Clouds first entered the MFA’s collection in 1911, it was mounted in four sections on thick paper. However, recent research determined the work was originally comprised of eight paintings on fusuma. The piece would have been part of a larger set adorning the interior of a Buddhist temple hall, with the tail of the dragon possibly lining one interior wall and the head ornamenting the opposing wall. Four additional fusuma of a smaller size (now missing) would have flanked a central altar. To restore Dragon and Clouds, MFA conservators first separated and repaired the damaged paintings—minimizing soiling and discoloration as well as removing disfiguring repairs. They then prepared custom-made wooden lattice cores with multiple layers of handmade Japanese paper on each side of the fusuma. After years of conservation, the final weeks saw the paintings mounted on the modified fusuma panels and finished with a simplified lacquer wooden trim.

The MFA conservation process also revealed a connection with Hawk, another pair of fusuma paintings by Shōhaku in the MFA’s collection, which will also be on view in the exhibition. The overall proportions and paper type used for both sets of paintings were identical, and repaired sections of Dragon and Clouds contained similar brushwork and details as Hawk. This led MFA conservators to conclude that these had been taken from damaged sections of the originally much larger hawk composition, and that both sets of paintings must have come from the same temple building. Birds-of-prey were one of Shōhaku’s favorite subjects, and Hawk is undoubtedly his most monumental example of this theme. Shōhaku’s hawks show close attention to minute detail and an ambition to depict each bird as a unique individual. In the MFA’s work, the hawk’s pose—with its body oriented toward the center but its head averted to the right—captures the bird’s state of wary vigilance. The sharp, incisive lines that define the hawk’s contours contrast to the freer, uninhibited lines used to depict the tree, rocks and grass. Also included in the exhibition are Shōhaku’s hanging scrolls Dragon (late 1770s) and Tiger (late 1770s).

Dragon and Clouds traveled to Japan in 2012, visiting the Tokyo National Museum, Kyushu National Museum, Osaka City Museum of Fine Arts and Nagoya/Boston Museum of Fine Arts—the MFA’s sister museum—as part of the exhibition, Japanese Masterpieces from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. The exhibition received over a million visitors—making it one of the most popular in the world in 2012. The MFA has a long-standing history of Japanese art that dates to the 19th century. In 1890, the MFA became the first museum in America to establish a Japanese collection and appoint a curator specializing in Japanese art, Okakura Kakuzō (also known as Okakura Tenshin, 1862–1913). The works in the exhibition were donated to the Museum in 1911 by William Sturgis Bigelow (1850–1926), an MFA Trustee who spent many years collecting art in Japan during the 1880s.

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