PRINT December 1965

Art Treasures from Japan

FOR SIX AUTUMN WEEKS (September 29 to November 7, 1965) the Los Angeles County Museum of Art showed some 150 individual works of art gathered from the Imperial Household Collection, Buddhist temples, Shinto shrines, museums and collections, both public and private, throughout Japan. This exhibition, entitled “Art Treasures from Japan,” was a delightful smattering of sometimes magnificent pieces; but it demonstrated no clear organizing mentality, little sense of unity or purpose, and elicited no clear effect or response. Not that the display of beautiful or highly-valued objects always needs some didactic justification—but the total effectiveness of the exhibition usually does depend upon communication of a rationale, a theme or coherent structure, which helps to explain why certain pieces were included, and why others were not. There is little evidence, however, that “Art Treasures from Japan” was either conceived or selected by any single creative spirit. Rather, it seems to have been the product of committee and compromise all the way.

Included in the exhibition are some great and famous works of art, such as the Yakushi Nyorai, the portrait of Fujiwara Mitsuyoshi, or the brilliantly satirical Choju Giga handscroll in the Kozan-ji, Kyoto. But after the tour, instead of being overwhelmed, one has a curious sense of thinness, and an uneasy suspicion of mediocrity about the show as a whole—perhaps unjust, but nagging all the same.

The significance of the exhibition for scholarship could conceivably be overstated, as it contained few pieces of really crucial historical import, despite many examples excellent for teaching purposes. In the end, however, the best teaching piece must be the greatest work of art, and here the exhibition contained some disappointments. The organizers may have tried for too wide an appeal—an intent possibly based on the theory that second and third-rate works of art, if billed as “treasures,” would be received as inscrutable masterpieces by the unsubtle Americans (with so little background in the niceties of Buddhist iconography, or the Sinology and textual criticism that has traditionally comprised so much of the Oriental approach to art history). This attitude, if indeed it is such that we see reflected in the exhibition, already has too long a history in America. Coomaraswamy’s bit about the “mystic East” and the superficial admiration for things Oriental inspired by Okakura might have been acceptable to Boston ladies of the 1920s and 30s, playing upon the Yankee penchant for masochism and a cultural inferiority complex. But today it compromises any intelligent approach to the art, based upon what careful stylistic analysis, scholarly methodology, and sweet reason can, and often do, provide.

A corollary is that the mere inscrutability of Oriental exotica can no longer suffice for us as a guarantee of esthetic significance. The traditional and historical importance of many pieces in the exhibition notwithstanding, all too few of the “Art Treasures from Japan” really succeed convincingly as treasures of art. (Only twenty-one works—or one out of six—are actually registered, in any event, in Japan as a National Treasure. And the question still remains, with many of these, whether or not they were selected primarily on the basis of esthetic merit.)

Installation at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art is appropriately restrained. That is, it is appropriate if we are willing to accept the Zen-based stereotype of the Japanese esthetic, and inappropriate if we are predisposed to follow the prevailing “elegance” of the Heian period, and the “devotion to rich and flowery ornamentation in this period,” or the “elegant opulence” and “sumptuousness” of the Momoyama period. (Introduction to the catalog, pp. 20–23.)

An obligation to protect the pieces as important things produced, unfortunately, a proliferation of uniformed guards and plainclothes detectives. Insofar as these contribute to a certain police-state atmosphere, they are inimical to the appreciation, in gracious and civilized repose, of any art. Really close, first-hand scrutiny of the works, absolutely essential for the artist, critic and scholar, was also martyred as protective cases and barriers prevented contact, and kept the distance. Admittedly, these are perhaps unavoidable compromises in the interest of security if art is going to be exposed to the masses who, we know empirically, do not always behave toward it with respect. But as for repose, there was no place to sit. With this installation, there was no room for benches.

The handsomely printed catalog organizes 117 entries by medium: sculpture, painting, calligraphy, metal work, lacquer, ceramics and textiles. Every entry is, as it should be, illustrated—even if sometimes without much imagination. The catalog also contains five pages of general introduction to the chronology and terminology of Japanese art; this is inadequate except for the most casual museum visitor. Nevertheless, good surveys of Japan’s cultural history do exist in English; no bibliography was included in the catalog, which must be regarded as an inexcusable omission—particularly since the material was readily at hand in several English-language texts.

In general, the catalog’s art historical commentary is brief to the point of risking misstatements. Fundamental problems of Japanese art, such as its complex, changing, and virtually continuous relationship to the art of China and Korea, are never clearly framed. On the other hand, there are only scattered and ineffectual attempts to explain crucial stylistic and historical concepts such as “Yamato-e,” or what it is that is essentially Japanese about Japanese art. The glossary explanation of Yamato-e is thoroughly inadequate, and probably does more harm than good in, for example, implying that screens and scrolls as such may provide reliable examples of Yamato-e.

The exhibition, as arranged at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, consisted of a sequence of rooms, each showing the works of a major chronological and stylistic period of Japanese art. This made reference to the catalog (arranged according to artistic medium) at times confusing. In terms of an exhibition, the Museum’s solution seems clearly preferable to an arrangement with all of the sculpture in the first room, all of the painting in the second, etc., but observations regarding the quality of individual works are perhaps best organized with reference to the catalog organization.

In sculpture, Yakushi Nyorai, Priest Chisho Daishi, the Portrait of Minamoto-no-Yoritomo, and the deer were most impressive. The technique and handling of wood sculpture was sometimes very exciting even when the pieces, weighted down with meanings and sanctity, failed to succeed completely as works of art. There was a noticeable lack of important large-scale bronzes (although many excuses for this come to mind immediately: too big, too heavy, too sacred, etc.). Even more serious, perhaps, was the absence of “haniwa,” discussed at some length in the catalog introduction. Daikasho and Subotai, together with Mawara-nyo and Basu-sen, may well appeal to some because of their remarkable naturalism.

The best of the paintings included the Portrait of Fujiwara Mitsuyoshi, Choju Giga, Heiji Monogatari, with its bold qualities of abstract design and spatial composition, Ama no Hashidate by Sesshu (although more exciting Sesshus probably exist) and Hotei Watching a Cockfight by Niten as a good example of ink painting. The earlier examples of religious scrolls probably suffer a certain loss of appeal by being shown out of context. None of the “makimono” compare with the Boston Museum of Fine Arts’ scroll showing the Burning of the Sanjo Palace (from the Heiji Monogatari) in dramatic effect, nor with the famous Genji Monogatari scrolls in Japan, of the Heian period, for delicacy of color and sensitivity of draftsmanship.

In screen painting, the examples by Sotatsu, Sosetsu, and Korin, are all superb. The level of quality in calligraphy is also generally very high, with the Kon-komyo-kyo Sutra, the fragment of a poem scroll by Koetsu, and the “ts’ao shu” or “grass writing” of the poetess Ise, as outstanding examples. Here again the catalog is confusing, however, in its failure to solve the difficult problem of separating calligraphy from painting, just as it also failed to distinguish clearly between scroll paintings and screens. No “Ukiyo-e” woodblock prints have been included.

In metal work and lacquer, the Heian sword mounting, the armor, and the saddle are first-rate works of art, possibly all the more appealing to us for our having been conditioned by frequent importations of the Japanese Wild West Samurai cinema. More visually exciting cosmetic boxes than those shown exist. Several of these, together with other sword mountings—both of which would have been easy to pack, to ship, and to display—could have been added to the exhibition. The triumphs of Japanese artistry in lacquer, the figural sculpture of the Nara period, are not hinted at, although the pieces might themselves be too precious and fragile to risk shipment. On the other hand, it is difficult to understand the absence of lacquer or wood masks, such as those used in the No dramas or the Bugaku theater.

The examples of pottery are the most impressive and rewarding of the entire exhibition—each piece of a moving excellence, despite the fact that not one is listed as an official National Treasure. The porcelain is of decidedly less interest in the context of Japanese art, although the examples are good of their kind. But it is only in the area of the pottery tradition that we may derive some indication of the immense wealth of Japanese folk art, otherwise here totally ignored. This is ironic because folk art, from work in clay and wood to paper making or the weaving of straw, constitutes one of Japan’s most important and truly vital artistic treasures. Still, some compensation is provided by the magnificent textiles, especially the Nuihaku and the Uchikake.

In conclusion, what one might well feel to be necessary now is an exhibition devoted to each separate medium—or, slicing the pie a different way, one for each separate historical period. Such a series of shows could then conceivably include selected Chinese works as necessary background or comparative material. Such a program, if planned with care and love, could then conceivably make sense to scholars, inspire artists, and, among members of the general public, create some sense of the almost incredible scope and richness of Japanese art.

Kurt von Meier, who received his Doctorate in the History of Art at Princeton, has recently been appointed Assistant Professor and Associate Director of the Art Galleries at the University of California, Los Angeles.