Japan Society Exhibits Highlights from Brooklyn Museum, Now thru 6/8

This spring the Gallery at Japan Society draws from the Brooklyn Museum's collection of Japanese art to present Points of Departure: Treasures of Japan from the Brooklyn Museum, a survey diverging from the conventional narrative of Japanese art by highlighting the polyglot nature of the Japanese achievement. (On view from today, March 7 through June 8, 2014.)

Ranging in date from prehistoric times to the present, the 71 works on view in Points of Departure encompass both the virtuosic treasures exemplifying Japan's best-known contributions to world art-screen paintings, ceramics, sculpture, and color woodblocks-and lesser-known, but revelatory, indigenous artifacts like delicate bark fiber robes, beaded jewelry, and carved artifacts for utilitarian and ritual use.

First started from an ethnological perspective more than a century ago and since expanded to represent the scope of classic and folk forms, the Brooklyn Museum's collection of Japanese art is one of the nation's foremost.

"Today, some of the most exciting new research into Japanese art is expanding the canon to include art forms once considered of only ethnological interest," says Dr. Miwako Tezuka, Director of Japan Society Gallery, who has organized the exhibition in collaboration with the Brooklyn Museum. "As the picture of Japanese culture more fully develops, it is clear that since pre-history, Japan has absorbed many ethnicities and cultures. This is one of the reasons we are delighted to partner with the Brooklyn Museum: its curators have been prescient in collecting works outside the mainstream. Many objects in this exhibition will feel like completely new material."

Arnold L. Lehman, Director of the Brooklyn Museum, says, "We are delighted to share these exceptional works from our superb holdings of Japanese material with the Japan Society and its visitors while our galleries of Asian and Islamic art undergo a major renovation."

To counter the usual emphasis on Edo (now Tokyo) and Kyoto in Japanese art scholarship, and the idea of a homogenous people, Points of Departure is organized by region-beginning in the South, traditionally the entry point for influences from China, Korea, and other areas of the continent, and then onward to the West, East and North.

The first gallery illuminates several seminal narratives of Japanese folklore, including the pre-Buddhist creation myth of the sun goddess Amaterasu, who used tiny polished stone beads (magatama) to create a number of deities and later, lured from a cave by a tree festooned with the stone carvings, returned light to the world. Here, a painted wooden Shinto votive plaque (1875) recounts the story alongside actual magatama from the Kofun period (ca. 300 A.D.-710 A.D.). Magatama is the oldest form of jewelry known in Japan and one of the three of the Imperial Regalia or the Sacred Treasures of Japan, representing benevolence (along with the sword, representing valor, and the mirror, wisdom). Brooklyn holds a large number of these claw- and fang-shaped stones, which are thought to have adorned the headgear and clothing of elite personages.

"Much has been debated about the cultural origin of magatama because identical stone and jade beads from the same period have been uncovered in royal tombs in Korea," notes Dr. Tezuka.

An evocatively abstract earthenware horse head from the 5th or 6th century, which once belonged to the artist Isamu Noguchi, is stationed nearby a haniwa (tomb figure) of a shamaness from the same period. More than 1,500 years later, traces of red iron-oxide pigment remain on the cheeks and eyebrows of this figure, which is adorned in a crescent-shaped headdress, a string of beads, and a robe that fastens diagonally. The haniwa speaks to the elevated status of the deceased, a chieftain from the dominant ethnic group of Japan, the Yamato. There are many theories about the first kingdom in Japan; some scholarship suggests that the Yamato followed a small kingdom that existed in the South during the 2nd and 3rd centuries. Subsequently, the Yamato shifted its seat of power to the West.

Beginning with the pre-historic earthenware figures from the Kofun period, Points of Departures continues into the late 13th and early 14th century with a wine bottle that is one of the oldest known examples of a highly refined stoneware made in the southwestern city of Seto and into the 15th century with a wine ewer (Arita ware) that is among a number of classic Japanese decorative objects reflecting the influences of East, South, and Southeast Asia.

This section also demonstrates how artists have extended ceramic form making in recent decades. Among the modern and contemporary works on view is Recollected Vista (Shinsh? F?kei), a large-scale sculptural ceramic piece by Kishi Eiko (b. 1948), in which Kishi, one of Japan's most prominent female ceramicists, employs exceptional technical mastery to wrest a futuristic, off-kilter form from stoneware embedded with mosaic-like particles painted with clay slip.

One of Brooklyn's greatest treasures highlights this section: a pair of shimmering six-fold screens that, when fully extended, transform into a 20-foot-long map of 17th-century life. Views In and Around Kyoto (ca.1616-1624) provides an extraordinary panoramic bird's eye view of daily life during every season in the early decades of the century, bringing to life in engrossing detail the sprawl of entertainments that so captivated Japan's emerging merchant class. Visitors will be able to identify present-day neighborhoods and celebrations that continue to this day.

In a more intimate scene, Cherry Blossom Viewing Picnic (ca. 1624-1644) captures close-up the frivolity and romance of fashionable y?jo, or pleasure women, and samurai on their way to a picnic on a brilliant spring day, while also showing figures from other walks of life, including a blind musician. The theme of the festive picnic is extended to adjacent displays of ceramics in the Kyoto style that represent the types of dishes that were used to serve food and tea. Among these are a lacquered portable table and a wine ewer in the Negoro style that reflects a refined design sensibility by juxtaposing sensual vermillion and black. Originally, these lacquer ware pieces were made for the offering of food and sake in front of altars in Shinto or Buddhist religious settings. The ewer's well-earned appearance of antiquity is the result of repeated handling, which has gently abraded the bright red overcoat and allowed the black lacquer to show through.

To foreground the archetypal religious traditions of Japan-Shintoism and Buddhism-several important sculptures from those traditions are included in the section devoted to the West. Of special interest is a 34-inch-tall wooden sculpture dating from the Heian period (794-1185), inlaid with crystal, presenting the seated Buddha in meditation, his right hand slightly raised and facing the viewer and his left forearm resting on his thigh, the palm facing upwards. The Brooklyn Museum acquired the work a decade ago and carefully restored it: Points of Departure marks the first time in decades that it has been placed on view.

From the Kamakura period are a pair of early 13th-century Koma-Inu guardian lion figures, one with its mouth open and the other, closed-gestures associated with the first and last sounds of the Sanskrit alphabet, a and um. Typically placed at the entrance to Shinto shrines, the fiercely rendered figures-flaring nostrils, bared teeth-were protectors of the sacred. The wooden figures date from the early 13th century and, in some parts, still retain bits and layers of pigment.

Featured in this section is a selection of color woodblock prints by Katsushika Hokusai, And? Hiroshige, and T?sh?sai Sharaku, the most sought-after ukiyo-e masters working in the 18th and 19th centuries in Edo (today's Tokyo). The new graphic sensibility of ukiyo-e depictions of popular tourist sites captured the imaginations of people from all walks of life. The viewer will be given the rare opportunity to see three extraordinarily fine, fan-shaped prints by Hiroshige as they were conceived: together, as a set.

A major revelation in Points of Departure will be 20 objects made by the northern Ainu people, who have occupied the island of Hokkaido for some 20,000 years. The Ainu lived under some degree of Japanese colonization and forced assimilation from the middle part of the 15th century until 2008, when the Japanese Diet finally recognized them as an indigenous people with their own culture.

Emblematic of the aesthetic cross-fertilization between the Ainu and mainland Japanese is a man's ceremonial robe of cotton, embroidery and appliqué. As was often the case, an Ainu weaver added to an existing Japanese kimono: in this case, adding a bold curvilinear white pattern against a black ground to a geometric zigzag pattern of grey and blacks. Another robe, made for a woman (late 19th-early 20th century), is sewn of attush, the traditional Ainu cloth made from the bark of an elm tree. These two examples are drawn from approximately 1,100 Ainu objects in Brooklyn's collection. Elaborately carved wooden prayer sticks and trays, and beaded jewelry, are other highlights of this section.

"The roots of our collection can be traced back to ethnographic expeditions around the turn of the last century which helped create for us one of the world's foremost collections of robes and other objects from the Ainu people," says Dr. Susan L. Beningson, Assistant Curator of Asian Art at the Brooklyn Museum. "The current exhibition offers a rare opportunity for the public to see a good number of these objects, which are infrequently exhibited and are only now gaining the recognition they deserve for their beauty and technical mastery."

In the Bamboo Room at the Japan Society a reading room will be installed to explore archival material. On view in this room will be photographs from early field expeditions presented in a looping PowerPoint presentation nearby floor cases displaying such items as a journal hand-written by Stewart Culin, the curator who journeyed to Japan in 1909 and 1912.

First established as part of the Department of Ethnology 110 years ago, Brooklyn's collection of Japanese art was greatly added to in 1909 when Culin returned from a field expedition to China and Japan with approximately 1,800 objects. By 1912, Culin had assembled an important Ainu collection, which was later supplemented by the museum's purchase of objects assembled by Frederick Starr, an academic who had been instrumental in organizing the Ainu exhibition at the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis.

In this section of the exhibition, visitors will also be able to peruse an array of Brooklyn Museum catalogues devoted to different aspects of the Japanese and Asian art collections, including many that are now out-of-print.

Artwork: Unknown Artist, Cherry Blossom Viewing Picnic, circa 1624-44 (Edo period). Ink, color, and gold leaf on paper; 39 3/8 x 105 3/8 in. Brooklyn Museum, Gift of Fredric B. Pratt, 39.87.

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