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Posts Tagged ‘matsushima’


A very small, but beautiful and very timely exhibit currently can be seen at the Sackler Gallery at the Smithsonian. Entitled “Waves at Matsushima,” the exhibit features one of the real treasures of the Freer/Sackler collection, a pair of folding screen paintings of the famous site by early 17th century painter Tawaraya Sôtatsu, who is, in short, a super big deal.

Above: “Waves at Matsushima” by Tawaraya Sôtatsu (act. ca. 1600-1640). Freer Gallery of Art F1906.231 and F1906.232.

As a result of my time at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, I was first introduced not to this work, but to one inspired by it and closely based on it roughly 100 years later by Ogata Kôrin, which I now feel sort of more closely connected to and more fond of. Sure, it’s a later piece, but still a great artistic treasure, and lacking the now badly tarnished silver cloud that, well, “tarnishes,” if you’ll pardon the pun, the overall appearance of Sôtatsu’s screens. I actually didn’t know about the Sôtatsu screens until my advisor at UH mentioned them – and not Kôrin’s – in a lecture in his intro/survey course on Japanese art.

Above: “Waves at Matsushima” by Ogata Kôrin (1658-1719). MFA Boston 11.4584. Image from MFA Online Catalog.

Matsushima, the site depicted, is known as one of the three most beautiful views in Japan. A collection of over 250 tiny pine-covered islands, Matsushima has been a popular subject of paintings and prints for hundreds of years. The site, located in northern Japan, was more or less in the center of the area hardest hit by the many devastating tsunami which struck on March 11 and in the days since. Miraculously – or perhaps naturally, on account of the shape and layout of the islands – the acclaimed pine-covered islands of Matsushima were largely unharmed, along with many of the temples and other structures and famous sites scattered among the islands, and along with a small area of coastal villages which were thus spared the tsunami as the islands out in the bay absorbed the brunt of the waves for them.

I do not know how often the Sôtatsu screens are put on display; it would be a real treat to see them at any time, and were I spending the summer outside of DC, e.g. home in NY, or elsewhere, these screens might be enough of a draw on their own that I would make the trip down to DC just to see them. But to have a proper exhibit organized around them, especially at this time, acknowledging these recent events (and their continuing ongoing aftermath), bringing it home a little bit for visitors and teaching them a bit about it, is really wonderful.

The screens are accompanied by a handful of prints by late 19th-early 20th century shin hanga artist Kawase Hasui, whose images are, plainly, stunningly beautiful.

Though small, the exhibit is very well designed, with its own distinctive and cohesive aesthetic – the walls are painted the blue-grey of the sea, and a handful of plaques, including maps and haiku, explain the history and significance of the site. I especially liked the title plaque above the door, with the exhibition title all in lowercase, and swaths of images of the site from different periods, from Edo period ukiyo-e landscapes to a very recent photo of post-tsunami devastation.

Waves at Matsushima closes July 5. You can read a brief review from the Washington Post here, and can see the rest of my photos of the exhibition over at my Flickr pages.

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Of course, we all recognize the horrific scale of this tragedy, lives and livelihoods lost. As I have said previously, and as I am sure many people are saying now on blogs and elsewhere, by no means do I intend to make light of that most important and most grievous aspect of this great tragedy.

Yet, news continues to come in about the status of historical sites, art museums & their collections, and the like. My great thanks to the members of the Japan Art History Forum for these updates; if anyone is opposed to my reposting here from the closed mailing list, let me know and I will be more than happy to delete or otherwise alter my posts as appropriate.

*Hiraizumi, the 12th century center of activity of the Northern Fujiwara (or Ôshû Fujiwara) clan, and often referred to as a “mini-Kyoto,” is reported as having sustained no major damage. The town, less than 40 miles from the coast and from places such as Kesennuma which were among the hardest hit, is home to Chûson-ji, a particularly distinctive and famous temple, which contains the Konjikidô, a mausoleum for several prominent members of the Ôshû Fujiwara clan, ornately decorated in gold, silver, and mother-of-pearl.

*I wondered in a previous post about the status of Matsushima, the collection of small islands off the coast widely touted as one of the three most beautiful scenic sights in Japan, which was geographically more or less right between the epicenter and the mainland of Honshû. I still have yet to come across any direct reports on the status of the site, but a report that Zuiganji, a Zen temple, is being used as a safe refuge for tsunami victims is encouraging. The temple is located within the town of Matsushima; only a thousand feet inland from the shore, I am amazed that the temple has remained relatively intact – intact enough to take in people – though I am not sure what this really says about the status of the tiny islands off-shore.

*The Japan Times offers a brief look at the fate or status of a number of sites, museums, and other buildings in Tohoku, and of closings/cancellations for museums and events in Tokyo.

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I like to consider myself a media-literate person, someone who can take a step back and understand how discourse affects us, and for what purposes it is created and shaped, so as to not be fully taken in by it. In this disaster, as in so many, a great many people are rightly accusing the media, especially the US media, of being sensationalist. And watching segments like emotional reunions, one certainly must recognize and acknowledge a drive for “good television” – a drive for finding, or creating, the most dramatic and emotional images and situations, to tear at the heartstrings of the viewer and make for more compelling programming.

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But not all of the programming is like that, and even when it is, I do not want to leap so quickly to such a cynical conclusion.

In any case, whatever the reasons behind such programming, be they financial, ratings, or whathaveyou, I am increasingly realizing that such programming really does serve a purpose for me.

The photos and videos are stunning, amazing, unbelievable. To see wide birds-eye views of the devastation, or giant boats in the middle of the street, or videos of the rushing water, certainly has impact and meaning. And to those for whom these are the most powerful images, more power to you. But to me, the more I look at them, the more I cannot help but think of it as mere spectacle. Omitting the human element and just admiring the awesome power of nature, and more to the point, just seeking an impressive composition or a rare shot that no one else has taken. The kind of image that makes people say “wow, what an incredible shot!” and not “Wow, what a terrible, sad, situation. I should donate some money.”

For me, and this is just me, I have always been more moved, more upset, by seeing other people upset, than perhaps anything else. A picture of a mother sobbing, with a caption about how she can’t find her husband or her son, even with little else to be seen in the picture, makes me tear up and my heart ache for her in a way that images of waves, or of piles of debris, or huge swaths of land – former towns – scoured clean do not.

And as I said in my previous post, it is difficult to feel that one is being upset enough, that one cares enough, that one feels connected enough to such a disaster. What does my being upset by myself in my room accomplish? Nothing, admittedly, except to make me feel better about myself that I might consider myself a less insensitive person; but it also means I’m more in the right mood or the right frame of mind to interact with my Japanese friends in a way that might be more appropriate and more supportive. And, sensationalist as these Ann Curry emotional reunion sort of segments may be, if they can get people here in the US to donate money – people who might not feel any particular connection or obligation to Japan, might not really feel the human side of it, much as I must admit I never really felt too much connection when events happened in Haiti – then it’s worth it, is it not?

They are now saying that there may have been as many as 10,000 deaths in the (former) town of Minami-sanriku alone. I remember Thursday night and Friday morning (Hawaii time) when they were giving numbers in the tens, and then the hundreds, and somehow I thought that was going to be more or less it.

I should hate to seem like I am simply brushing aside the human loss here, the very practical day-to-day losses of homes and infrastructure, of cars and possessions, and of loved ones and friends. These things are of course paramount, and terribly terribly upsetting.

But, this is an art and history and culture blog, and so I think it not inappropriate to touch upon news or announcements related to the art world. My thanks to the professional curators, art history professors, and other leading experts, members of the Japan Art History Forum for this information, which I hope it is no trouble or breach of trust to pass along here from the members-only mailing list.

As of right now, all the national museums are closed until Friday (March 18), and many private museums across the country are enacting similar closures. Staff are working to confirm the status of their museum buildings and collections, contacting lenders overseas to inform them of the status of their objects, etc. The key word that appears several times in the report of one JAHF member is “fluid” – I am sure that there are plenty of procedures in place, and that experts, i.e. museum staff, are following them, but the situation is also changing from minute to minute, and people are doing whatever needs doing, I would imagine with a fair degree of breakdown of normal hierarchies, jurisdictions, and standard roles, people just being people, and working together to do whatever needs doing, rather than being this dept and that dept, or superiors and staffers.

I am merely passing on information that I have heard; I apologize that in some cases I am not familiar with the sites referred to. I apologize also that the information is so scattered, mentioning some museums and not others, but, anyway, I just thought readers might be interested to know. Just as we may talk today about what was lost or destroyed in historical disasters in 1945, 1923, or the like, this sort of information, about the status of historical sites and of precious artworks at museums (not to mention the human lives of colleagues and friends – curators, museum staffers, etc.) is of importance and of interest.

*As of Saturday, curators at the Sendai Prefectural Museum reported in that they, and the collections, are safe.

*Koga is safe. [I’m assuming they’re referring to the town of Koga in Ibaraki prefecture, known for its historical and art museum?]

*A Rokkakudo, or six-sided pavilion, constructed by or associated with Okakura Tenshin [the one at Izura mentioned on this page?] has been washed away.

*A Rembrandt exhibit opened at the National Museum of Western Art in Tokyo on the day of the quake. Curators and artworks are all reported to be safe.

*Additionally, the Miyagi Prefectural Museum is reported to have “not sustained tremendous damage, … the staff is all accounted for, and the collection is not damaged.”

*Not from JAHF, but I have also heard that a major historical site – residences of the Date samurai lords of Sendai – has been destroyed. I have heard nothing about the status of Sendai Castle, and am curious. I am also curious about the status of Matsushima, one of the “official” Three [most] Scenic Views in Japan, a series of small wooded islands which have been a famous sight for centuries, and which are immortalized in numerous paintings, stories, travel journals, prints, and the like. From what I understand, Matsushima was essentially right between the epicenter of the quake and the mainland of Honshu, so, as was mentioned on the Samurai Archives forums, it seems unlikely that this extremely famous, nationally well-known and treasured site of natural beauty has survived. Anyone heard any word on this?

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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.

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