Japanese Masterpieces from the Museum of Fine Arts Boston : Tokyo National Museum

Tokyo National Museum
March 20 – Jun 10 2012

‘Most anecdotes on Shohaku describe an arrogant, brazen, aggressive individual’ , but it is a work by this artist that tops the Tokyo National Museum poll of favourite works at the current exhibition of Japanese Masterpieces from the Museum of Fine Arts Boston. Repatriated for a blockbuster exhibition of works which left Japan in the Meiji Period, the exhibition includes a number of works which, if still in Japan, would be designated National Treasures (read more).

Any trip to Japan will guarantee a number of spectacular art exhibitions in a number of different institutions, but this particular trip afforded the opportunity to see magnificent works rarely seen.

Soga Shohaku’s (1730-1781) popular painting Unryu: Dragon and Clouds (1763) was originally painted for a set of fusuma doors and has apparently languished in storage in Boston, restored and mounted especially for this exhibition. Its bold unapologetic power is transfixing: From one angle the dragon is fearsome and intimidating, from another an almost cute, manga-like caricature. The power of Shohaku’s brush and his urgent, invasive spirit are breathtaking. In one painting, the lecherous expression of a voyeur monk amidst a classic painterly scene catches one unawares, causing involuntary laughter, repulsion and awed respect for the artist all at once.

Ogata Korin’s Waves at Matsushima screen was another highlight for me. Unlike the artist’s iris paintings this is a lesser known, less published work which increases the pleasure of seeing it in the flesh. It is a work of more spiritual and emotional depth than the iris paintings, rich in energy, dynamically conveying the power of the nature it depicts. The theme is a famous one reproduced by other artists in lacquer and prints- a notable one by Kamisaka Sekka. This is especially relevant as we have just stayed at a ryokan right on the coast at Matsushima- deceptively calm after the tsunami.

The quality of the collection of the MFA Boston is credited to two of the first scholars and collectors from America in Japan in the Meiji Period, Ernest Fenollosa (one of the founders of Tokyo School of Fine Art and professor at Tokyo Imperial University) and William Bigelow (later Trustee of MFA and donated some 40,000 objects), and to Japanese scholar and connoisseur Okakura Tenshin who became the head of the Asian division of the museum in 1910.

The question arises of course as to how one feels to see so much of Japan’s cultural heritage owned by foreign institutions and collectors, which also links to the huge amount of European art, particularly Impressionist paintings, in Japanese museums.

A Japanese friend, highly regarded in the art world, accompanying us at the exhibition, reminded me that during the Meiji period the policy of haibutsu kishaku 廃仏毀釈, an anti-Buddhist movement aimed at establishing Shinto as the official religion of Japan, caused the destruction of much of Buddhist art. These collectors and scholars served to protect and preserve much of Japan’s heritage. It is appropriate here to note that Australian collections of Japanese art in many ways serve the same function. Freed from the political and social restraints of Japanese society, Western collectors generally respond firstly to the art quality of the works, rather than the pedigree of the artist, creating an international platform for young contemporary Japanese artists.

Shaka the Historical Buddha Preaching on Vulture Peak
Nara period 8th century
Museum of Fine Arts Boston

Waves at Matsushima
Ogata Korin
Edo period early 18th century
Museum of Fine Arts Boston

Minister Kibi’s Adventures in China (detail)
Heian period late 12th century
Museum of Fine Arts Boston

Transcendent Attacking a Whirlwind
Soga Shohaku
Edo period late 18th century
Museum of Fine Arts Boston

Dragon and Clouds (detail)
Soga Shohaku
Edo period dated 1763
Museum of Fine Arts Boston