I still have lots I’ve yet to talk about from my Boston trip – chiefly, the Isabella Stewart Gardner’s Journeys East exhibition, and the MFA Showa Sophistication exhibit. I’m almost done reading James McClain‘s book on Kanazawa, so I’ll post about that soon, too.
But today, I’d like to talk about the new book MFA Highlights: Art of Japan, by Anne Nishimura Morse, Joe Earle, Rachel Saunders, and Sarah Thompson, which was just published a few months ago. At only $25 for 250 pages of full-color descriptions of a well-distributed sampling of the MFA’s amazing collection, I think it’s among the most reasonably priced art books I’ve ever seen. Softcover, perfect bound, gives the book a good feel in your hands and on your shelf.
The Museum of Fine Arts Boston has the largest collection of Japanese art under one roof anywhere in the world, including a number of pieces of incredible historical and artistic significance, which would quite likely be designated National Treasures or at least Important Cultural Properties were they to return to Japan. This book does a fine job of showcasing these pieces, including an 1189 statue of Miroku by Kaikei, a handscroll painting of the Siege of the Sanjô Palace (from the Heiji Monogatari Emaki), a folding screen of “Waves at Matsushima” by Ogata Kôrin, and a narrative handscroll (emakimono) of Kibi Daijin’s Journey to China.
It also does an excellent job of featuring a wide variety of big names in Japanese art, though it would obviously be impossible to not leave anyone out. Still, the book includes work by Kaikei, Soga Shôhaku and Itô Jakuchû, Kanô Motonobu, Tan’yû and Hôgai, Hokusai, Hiroshige, Harunobu, Shiba Kôkan (though, nothing by Harushige), Kuniyoshi, Murakami Takashi, and Morimura Yasumasa, and does so, more often than not, by treating the reader to works other than those for which the artist is most famous. Hokusai is easily one of the most famous names in Japanese woodblock prints, and the museum could have chosen to feature the Great Wave or any number of other famous prints; but the museum is also lucky to have a number of exquisite paintings by the master, and so chose one of those, a stunning image of a woman looking at herself in the mirror, in addition to two prints. They have also included a beautiful painting by Katsushika Ôi, Hokusai’s daughter. I’ll bet you didn’t know he had a daughter, or that she was a painter; we hear very little about female artists in pre-20th century Japanese art history, so this was a most welcome inclusion.
Most exciting for me, however, in going through this book, is the personal connection I feel to the objects, the museum, and all the people involved in creating this text. Over the course of my internship at the MFA, I became intimately familiar (okay, maybe not “intimately” but quite familiar) with many of these works. I think anyone who is an art enthusiast will appreciate what I mean when I talk about works that you feel a particular connection to, works that are in some way in your mind or in your heart “yours” even though they’re owned by museums, and you actually have no more connection to it than countless others do. Many of the works in this book are that for me. This internship, in fact, provided the foundation of my knowledge of Japanese art history; I’d never had the opportunity to take any Japanese art history courses in college beyond the most introductory level, and so it is through these works of art that I acquired my understanding of the differences between Kanô and Rinpa, Harunobu and Chikanobu, Jakuchu and Taiga.
For me, this book is not purely an art book, yet another “highlights of the collection” book, but a journey in nostalgia, and a fantastic source of reminders on all the artworks that formed the foundation of my Japanese art historical knowledge. I look forward to choosing works from this book for future Spotlight posts.
All images are the property of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston and are linked directly to the Museum’s public Collections Database. Fair use is intended to the full extent possible; I make no claims of ownership of or rights to these images.