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
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.