Deleted Boundaries: Japanese Art at the Met

Utagawa (Gountei) Sadahide, “The Newly Opened Port of Yokohama in Kanagawa Prefecture” (1860). Triptych of polychrome woodblock prints; ink and color on paper; 14 1/2 x 29 inches. Bequest of William S. Lieberman, 2005 (all images via (click to enlarge)

Discovering Japanese Art: American Collectors and the Met is the unsexy title of a luxuriantly sensual exhibit that speaks with uncanny precision to our post-postmodern moment.

Although it fills nine galleries of the Metropolitan Museum of Art with more than 200 pieces, the show comes off as a modest and at times uneven affair: many of the offerings are decorative objects or tiny netsuke figures, and some of the more recent artworks are uneven in quality, to put it mildly.

“Fudō Myōō (Achala-vidyārāja)” (12th century). Joined-woodblock construction with traces of color and cut-gold; height: 63 3/4 inches. The Harry G. C. Packard Collection of Asian Art, Gift of Harry G. C. Packard, and Purchase, Fletcher, Rogers, Harris Brisbane Dick, and Louis V. Bell Funds, Joseph Pulitzer Bequest, and The Annenberg Fund Inc. Gift, 1975 (click to enlarge)

As stated in the Met’s press release, the exhibit “tells the story of how the Museum built its comprehensive collection of Japanese art beginning in the early 1880s, when it owned just a small, eclectic array of Japanese decorative arts,” spotlighting such collectors as Frank Lloyd Wright, William S. Lieberman, Harry G. C. Packard, and Henry and Louisine Havemeyer. But the show’s real interest is found in the material presence of its most exquisitely wrought objects, which sit on the interface of art and reality much more fluidly than Western art of the same era.

One of the more striking works in the show’s opening rooms is an anonymous Heian period (794–1185) statue from the 12th century depicting Fudō Myōō, a standing warrior brandishing a golden sword. Described in the label as “the most widely represented of the Buddhist deities known as Myōō, or Kings of Brightness,” Fudō, it goes on to say, “uses his sword to cut through ignorance and his lasso to reign [sic] in those who would block the path to enlightenment.” His name “means the ‘Immovable.’”

Fudō Myōō’s rounded features suppurate fury: the half-closed left eye heightens the ferocity of the bulging right one, which shoots its scorching beam right at you. There are upward and downward-pointing fangs at the nadirs of his frown, and his spherical head whips the space around it like the eye of a storm.

The figure stands on what looks like the gnarled stump of an actual tree, and it wears an elaborate brass necklace and holds an actual rope lasso. These objects serve to split the membrane separating the mythic from the real, unleashing the specter of a deity who should stay in his own dimension suddenly accessorizing himself with things that belong to ours. It makes for a forceful spectacle in our time; eight hundred years ago it must have induced sheer terror.

This fluctuation between reality and artifice is more subtly manifested in the painted screens, in which the gold of the abstracted background reflects the light around it, dissolving the surface and exponentially multiplying the color interactions.

“The Plains of Musashi” (17th century). Six-panel folding screen; ink, color, gold, silver, and gold leaf on paper; image: 60 1/16 x 140 inches. Purchase, Mary Livingston Griggs and Marry Griggs Burke Foundation Gift, 1967 (click to enlarge)

In perhaps the most ethereal screen on display, a 17th-century anonymous Edo (1615–1868) work called “The Plains of Musashi,” the moon, originally silver and now oxidized black, dominates the left two sections of the screen’s six panels like a lead weight. Barely risen above the horizon, it nestles between lowering golden clouds and thread-thin blades of grass, which overlap into a dense but remarkably articulated network of green curves across the bottom edge of the screen.

It’s astonishing how minimal this work is, with its entire upper half filled with an empty gold expanse save for a flock of geese (which could be, according to the label, a later addition) entering from the upper right. The metallic blankness we encounter fuses representation and abstraction with what resolutely remains, despite its role in the screen’s imagery, a gold-covered sheet of paper.

Equally beguiling is the way the folded screen’s zigzagging form blunts the illusionism of the painted scene, while at the same time, by slicing into real space, the panels beckon us deeper into their imaginary world. Another compelling example is “Tagasode (‘Whose Sleeves?’),” an anonymous six-panel screen from the first half of the 17th century, making it a product of either the Momoyama (1573–1615) or Edo (1615–1868) period.

Depicting a clothing stand draped with patterned garments (the title, which was retroactively applied in the 19th century to this type of image, is a reference to classical Japanese love poetry), “Tagasode is riveting in its geometric abstraction and stark formality. The rack is isolated against an unadorned gold field, and the forms are shockingly graceless compared with the fluid elegance of most Japanese painting.

“Tagasode (‘Whose Sleeves?’)” (first half of the 17th century). Six-panel folding screen; ink, color, gold, silver, and gold leaf on paper; 59 1/4 x 10 ft. 10 11/16 inches. H. O. Havemeyer Collection, Gift of Mrs. Dunbar W. Bostwick, John C. Wilmerding, J. Watson Webb Jr., Harry H. Webb, and Samuel B. Webb, 1962 (click to enlarge)

Moreover, the panel on the far left is completely empty, which deepens the abstraction of the gold field as it underscores the screen’s utility as a room divider. Complicating this further is the rendering of the hanging clothes, which magically combines pure geometry, lushly pooling color and trompe l’oeil illusionism, with the painted textures convincingly conveying a sumptuous silkiness.

While these two works stand out for their simplicity, there are others, most notably a pair of six-panel screens from the first half of the Edo period, “Autumn Trees and Grasses by a Stream” and “Spring Trees and Grasses by a Stream,” in which the surface is more generously covered in strokes, dabs and spatters of pigment.

These screens and others in the show immerse you in a realm where the lines dividing art and reality, function and decoration, material and illusion blithely evaporate — a familiar place for citizens of the 21st-century art world to find themselves.

Which makes it all the more disappointing that the one major area where the exhibition falls short is in its selection of Ukiyo-e prints, the most obvious bridge between Japanese art and contemporary culture.

There’s Katsushika Hokusai (1760–1849), of course, and “The Great Wave” (Edo, ca. 1830–32), of course, and a landscape by his near-contemporary Utagawa Hiroshige (1797–1858). And it is admittedly a treat to study several examples of manga, still bound in their original form, displayed in a vitrine.

But while there are Kabuki actor portraits and theatrical scenes by the likes of Katsukawa Shunshō (1726–1792), Katsukawa Shunkō (1743–1812) and Tōshūsai Sharaku (1794–95), there are none by Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1797-1861), whose extravagantly unhinged imagery filled the galleries of the Japan Society in an unforgettable exhibition in 2010.

Similarly, in the latter stages of the exhibition’s timeline, we find a sampling of Western-influenced prints from the mid-19th century, such as “The Newly Opened Port of Yokohama in Kanagawa Prefecture” (Edo, 1860) by Utagawa (Gountei) Sadahide (1807–1878/79), which often swap traditional isometric perspective for Renaissance-style single-point perspective. They may be odd-looking hybrids, but none of them possess the exquisite decadence of Yamazaki Toshinobu (active 1857-1886), who melded Western-inflected drawing with a frenzy of compositional invention, eye-popping color and often startling violence.

In other words, these are Edo prints from the politest end of the spectrum. Perhaps that is to be expected given the prevailing standards of taste at the time when the collectors being commemorated in this exhibition did their collecting. But there are others who have made significant contributions to the Met, such as the hundreds of prints donated by the estate of Samuel Isham in 1914 and by the great impresario Lincoln Kirstein in1959, that would offer a little more spice to the brew.

It could be that specific collections were chosen to weight the exhibition equitably across a variety of media. Still, with such a limited offering of prints, an opportunity seems to have been missed, and from this point on the show fizzles out — a consequence not at all helped by the appallingly kitschy “PixCell-Deer#24” (2011) on display in the final room, a grafting of Jeff Koons onto Damien Hirst by the artist Kohei Nawa (born 1975), who completely covered a taxidermied deer with artificial crystal balls.

Be that as it may, the experience of the exhibition is one of serial revelation, as something you might have initially disregarded suddenly captures your imagination, pulling you back to rooms you’ve already visited to reconsider what you’ve seen. And since dozens of the more delicate objects, including some mentioned here, will be rotated out and similar pieces will take their place, there will be new things to discover as the show, which opened on February 14th, heads into the summer.

Discovering Japanese Art: American Collectors and the Met continues at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (1000 Fifth Avenue, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through September 27.

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