A Tenth Anniversary Celebration of Japanese Art and Influences that Shaped It
Japan, Country of Beauty
at the Kyushu National Museum
Review by Emily J. Sano
Ten years ago, in October of 2005, the Kyushu National Museum in Fukuoka opened to the public to great excitement, the first new national museum to open in Japan in more than a century. To emphatically commemorate its tenth anniversary, the museum has given its current exhibition the same title as that of itsof inaugural show:Japan, Country of Beauty. A handsome exhibit featuring some 95 works, the show will be on view until November 29, 2015, with several rotations.
Looks at Influences Beyond Japan
The exhibition effectively illustrates the mission the museum articulated when it opened in 2005. Perhaps reflecting its location as the island closest to the Asia mainland, the Kyushu National Museum strives to recognize how Japan has welcomed cultures from abroad throughout its history, adopting and integratingforeign aesthetic elements and techniques to its own arts and crafts. As stated in the organizer's foreword:
The people of ancient Japan constantly admired the advanced cultures and new products of foreign lands and selectively adopted them wherever necessary. They excelled at skillfully combining these new ways with the traditions of previous generations to to create a new form of Japanese beauty.
(English Foreword to the Exhibition Catalogue, p. 255)
The exhibition surveys singular Japanese artistic achievements from earliest times in the Jomon period(beginning about 14,000 BCE), to the early Kamakura period in the 13th century. It features works chosen toemphasize "....cultural exchange with the world of East Asia. With more than 70% of the objects in the show designated as either"National Treasures" or "Important Cultural Properties", the curators have assembled adisplay of remarkable quality, including treasures from pre-history, the 8th century imperial repository in Nara,the Shoso-in, and Buddhist paintings and sculptures. And the show includes exquisite works less familiar tothe general public, pieces from the Ryukyu Islands (present-day Okinawa, south of the Japanese archipelago)and Ezo, (the lands north of Japan, home to the Ainu).
Pre-History and Early Chinese Influences
The show starts Chronologically with superb examples of objects revealed through archaeology. These include the flamboyant,flame-rim ceramic vessels of the Middle Jomon (4,000-1,500 BCE), and a female figurine with the curvilinear,cord-impressed surfaces in the Kamegaoka style of the final Jomon period (1,500 BCE-300 CE). Early bronze bells and mirrors signal a leap in metallurgical advancement occurring contemporaneously with a period of mass production in Chinese bronze mirrors during the Han dynasty (206 BCE - 220 CE). Two unique mirrors illustrate the Japanese absorption of Chinese influence-one decorated with a native motif of thatched roof houses, and the second, an unusual large mirror with anabstract pattern of curvilinear and straight lines. Both mirrors demonstratea heightened level of graphic sophistication and a seamless execution unexpected in such early pieces.
The mysterious clay tubes called haniwa round out the pre-history objects. Usually found around the base of elite tombs, some stand as tall as four feet,and feature open work sides and incised lines that follow the curves of the openwork pattern.Injecting an element of charm and fun, the haniwaselection has the famous pair of dancing figures that, to westerners,resemble children draped in sheets as Halloween ghosts. A didactic displayof a reproduced large clay coffin raises questions of how ancient Yayoi (200BCE - 250 CE) and Kofun (250-552) people rose to overcome the technicalchallenges of making such large vessels. Along with the objects on view,photographs of grave sites suggest that new techniques of shaping and firingclay may have entered the country through burial practices adopted fromthe continent.
In a particularly clear illustration of the museum's argument regarding foreign influences, the show includes several objects from the Shoso-in in Nara. This imperial storehouse has miraculously preserved a treasure trove of over 9,000 objects: documents, textiles, and all manner ofpractical and luxury goods befitting an imperial court. Whilethe Shoso-in contains many domestically manufacturedartifacts, the treasury also holds items from Tang China, India,Iran, Greece, Rome, and Egypt. Without question, many ofthese items inspired new crafts and techniques when they firstarrived in Japan. The spectacular 8th century Chinese luteremains unparalleled, with its body crafted of dark shitanwood and embellished with decoration in carved mother-of-pearl. But the fragment of an elegant Tang period, brocadelute bag, on the other hand, served as a model for the type oftextile Japanese weavers successfully mastered.
Buddhism Brings New Ideas in the Arts
The arrival of Buddhism in Japan in the 6th century has singular importance for not only establishing a foreign religion, but also for introducing the Japanese to a sophisticated continental culture. With Buddhism came learned monks, who brought along scriptures and literature, devotional objects,architecture, and systems of court structureand regional organization. This exhibit represents Early Buddhism with a precious group of small gilt bronze sculptures fromthe repository of Horyu-ji treasures, whichhave their own building on the ground of the Tokyo National Museum. These small works encompass several early styles of Buddhist sculpture introduced from the mainland. One especially charming group illustrates the Birth of the Buddha, with a tiny baby Buddha figure emerging head first from the sleeve of his mother's robe-a rather chaste rendition compared to Indian examples of that same moment.
A glorious gathering of six richly ornamented paintings of Buddhist deities offer another treat. Produced in the 12th century and assembled here fromvarious collections, these works rarely appear in Japanese exhibitions. The figures, with features outlined in red, carefully follow Chinese Tang dynastypaintings styles. Of particular note among these paintings, the magnificentNational Treasure masterpiece, Shakyamuni (aka the "Red-robed ShakaBuddha" belonging to Jingo-ji)will be on view during the exhibition's last three weeks (November 10-29).
Two well-chosen works admirably reflect the process of stylistic development in Japanese Buddhist sculpture. The monumental Tamon-ten(Sk. Vaisravana) is a beautifully preserved example of the 7th century Asukastyle: standing seven feet tall on the back of a gremlin, the deity commands attention fromall who dare to approach. Removed for this show, it normally stands in the great Golden Hall of the Horyu-ji temple's main compound,as one of four Heavenly Kings protecting the Shaka and Yakushi Buddhas on the altar. Sculpted as an example of the so-called Chinese "archaic" style, it has a smooth, youthful face and alert, almond-shaped eyes.
By contrast, the deeply moving portrait of Chogen Shonin, the Todai-ji monk, shows how this style had evolved five centuries later and at the pinnacle of realism in Japanese Buddhist sculpture. It presents the monk asan aged, humble devotee. Chogen has aspecial importance to the history of Japanese Buddhism. When, in 1180, the great Nara temple Todai-ji burned during a civil war, the temple appointed Chogen to lead a reconstruction effort. For the next 25 years,he raised funds, travelled to China multipletimes, and sought craftsmen and sculptors forthe re-building. New artistic influences flowedto Japan from Song China in architecture andart with new styles. Sculpture by the Keischool artists Unkei (ca. 1150-1223) and Kaikei (fl. 1183 -1236), who produced some ofthe finest work from the late 12th and early13th century, executed significant works for Todai-ji. Their great Guardiandeities, Buddha images, and portrait-like figures help establish the Kamakuraperiod as a brilliant age for art. Although no existing documentation identifieswho carved the seated Chogen, the figure's humanity and power strongly suggestits attribution to Unkei.
The unexpected selection of robes, lacquerware, and metal objects drawn fromthe collections of the Ryukyu Islands as well as works of Ainu culture, show adeep appreciation for aesthetic movements beyond the traditional capitals ofKyoto and Nara. The lacquerware featured here, from an Okinawa museum collection, has the incised, goldfilled decoration popular for court gifts to foreign dignitaries. The bingata kimono (Okinawan resist dyed cloth) insilk and cotton, and a garment of woven banana thread, offer elegant, colorful examples of their special techniques.
A 21st Century Museum
When the Kyushu National Museum opened in 2005, this reviewer was privileged to be among the attendees. The structurereflected a 21st century concept of museum design with anundulating roof over an enormous hall, 4-stories in height, thatcontains display galleries, conservation studios, climate-controlledart storage, an auditorium, cafe, restaurant, and shop. And it alsoembraced a 21st century approach to its mission. At that time,the museum declared it would strive to educate the publicthrough special didactic techniques and visual enhancements thatwould add information and tactile experiences for the visitor. They also asked for advice about the way to best positionamenities, such as restaurants and shops.
My recent visit confirmed that, after ten years of operation, the museum remains sensitive to its audiences in a way not seen in most other Japanese museums. The special exhibition makes liberal use of large labels adjacent to objects on display, uses photo blowups to facilitate the examination of small details, andplaster models that allow visitors a tactile experience of selectobjects. Anticipating traffic flows, the museum added crowdcontrols for special works, such as giving the Shoso-in lute, its ownroom with sufficient space for a queue to form and pass on threesides of the display case. Entrance to the museum building is free, so visitors can enjoy a coffee shop,restaurant, and education studio without paying admission, although there is a charge for the special exhibition.
The Kyushu National Museum is off the beaten track of most visitors to Japan. But recently extended bullettrain lines and economical air tickets have made a visit to northern Kyushu easier than ever before. And theKyushu National Museum has facilities and exhibitions that make the trip most worthwhile.
The Pilkington Anglo-Japanese Cultural Foundation is most grateful to the Kyushu National Museum and its Public Relation Office for providing the photographic illustrations for this Review.