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.