Japanese Art in the Asia Society Collection

Asia Society


More Than Meets the Eye: Japanese Art in the Asia Society Collection, on view from April 7 through August 16, 1998, featured more than forty artworks, including paintings, prints, sculpture, and ceramics from the Neolithic to the early modern period. Among the selected works were masterpieces such as the Muromachi period's Bodhisattva Kshitigarbha (Jizo Bosatsu) by Zen'en; Sakai Hoitsu's folding screen Pine and Wisteria of the Rinpa tradition; a bowl with pierced openwork by Ogata Kenzan; Edo-period woodblock prints such as Kitagawa Utamaro's A Flirt from the series Ten Studies in Female Physiognomy (Fujin sogaku juttai); and an exquisite tea leaf jar with a design of quarreling crows by Nonomura Ninsei.

Drawing on the fruits of twenty years of scholarship since the collection was donated to the Asia Society in 1978, More Than Meets the Eye asked new questions and offered fresh insights into Japan's artistic traditions. By reexamining the artworks through the lens of class, race, gender, and national identity, the exhibition showed how patrons influenced the production of art and how artists tailored their aesthetic approach to differing ideals of "Japaneseness" at critical junctures in Japan's history.

More Than Meets the Eye explores several provocative themes. First, the exhibition tackled the relationship between Japan's foreign policy and its assimilation of aesthetic forms from other cultures. Throughout its history, Japan has alternated between an open-door foreign policy and one that is more conservative and insular. Japan acquired and adapted foreign cultures sometimes through peaceful interaction and, more rarely, through military and violent appropriation. For example, the female clay sculpture from Horyuji temple illustrates the absorption of Chinese prototypes in eighth-century Japanese art. Conversely, the important stoneware traditions of Kyushu during the Momoyama and early Edo periods, as seen in the Karatsu mukozuke dishes, owe much to Japan's imperialist aspirations: the earliest potters were Koreans captured and brought back to Japan following Japan's invasion of Korea in the 1590s.

Another theme concerns the different functions of objects and the social values attached to them. One interesting paradox is illustrated by a water jar used for tea ceremonies. A perfect symbol of simplicity and humility - a Japanese aesthetic that celebrates the everyday - the jar is representative of ceramic wares prized by the warrior class. What is remarkable is the existence of such an aesthetic sensibility among an uncultivated class. Not only were rustic ceramics such as this water jar intensely coveted and carefully guarded, most of the wares were given names to designate their importance.

Taste, status, social and political trends: all influenced the development of Japanese cultural forms. Equally important is the impact of particular economic markets on visual styles and cultural representations. Especially during the Edo period, certain objects were produced for export while others were made exclusively for specific domestic markets. For example, a porcelain figurine of a seated woman depicted in beautiful costume and delicate coiffure represents one of many figural types made for European consumption in the late seventeenth century. These images directly influence Western perceptions of Japanese women up to the present day.

This exhibition honored
Dr. Sherman E. Lee, one of the world's foremost scholars of Asian art and Director Emeritus of the Cleveland Museum of Art, on his eightieth birthday. Dr. Lee served as advisor to John D. and Blanchette Hooker Rockefeller in the 1960s and 1970s, when they assembled their collection of Asian art. The collection was given to the Asia Society in 1978.