Posts Tagged ‘metropolitan museum’

I’m looking forward to visiting the Metropolitan Museum within the next few days, chiefly to see their exhibit Silla: Korea’s Golden Kingdom, which promises to be a precious rare opportunity to see Korean National Treasures. But there’s always so much going on at the Met, and right now they also have a small exhibit on obelisks, in conjunction with the upcoming conservation of the so-called Cleopatra’s Needle, which stands just outside the museum in Central Park. Allison Meier of Hyperallergic.com posted this fascinating review today (complete with lots of pictures):

When Cleopatra’s Needle was commissioned by Pharaoh Thumose III around 1450 BCE for the Heliopolis sun temple, the island that would be Manhattan was mostly woodlands. Yet through an unlikely journey the 69-foot, 220-ton length of red granite would arrive in 1880 in New York City and become one of the icons of Central Park. Now the obelisk is needing a little care after centuries of movement and decay, and in anticipation of the Central Park Conservancy’s Spring 2014 conservation project, the Metropolitan Museum of Art is hosting an exhibition on the obelisk, which rests just outside its walls.

Cleopatra’s Needle actually isn’t just an exhibition on that one ancient artifact, but a small exploration of obelisks as a whole, from their symbolism of the sun in ancient Egypt, to monuments of power for Rome, to connections to the past in the Renaissance, to their proliferation through Victorian cemeteries and Egyptomania. The exhibition is only two small galleries, but it still gives a rather thorough overview of the major points of obelisk lore. …

Read more at Hyperallergic.

Photo my own, taken Dec 19, 2013.

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Just a few things that have come up this week.

*Korea’s National Treasure Number One, Seoul’s Namdaemun (“South Great Gate”), severely damaged by an arsonist in 2008, has been reopened to the public after a US$24 million restoration project.

*Speaking of heritage issues, the New York Times reports that the Metropolitan Museum has agreed to return a pair of statues to Cambodia after Cambodian officials presented clear evidence that the statues had been taken out of the country illegally in the 1970s.

I find it heartening that the Cambodian Secretary of State is quoted as saying “This shows the high ethical standards and professional practices of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which they are known for.” It is wonderful to see the Metropolitan characterized in such a positive manner, as a potential partner and not as an adversary or obstacle.

*Meanwhile, on the subject of museums, there are apparently plans for a giant bubble to be installed at the Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn sculpture museum, seasonally, serving as a decidedly (post-?)modernist additional gallery space.

The Smithsonian Magazine article I found discussing this (thanks for the heads up, dad!) expresses concerns that the plan may not fly, as DC, the very model of a bureaucratic city, loves its drab grey concrete too much, and similarly creative contemporary-looking sort of projects have failed in the past. I guess only time will tell if it does manage to go through.

*On a separate subject, a recent blog post posted by the Queens Museum of Art invites us to consider social activist artistic practice, and the questions of what makes it “art”? and Why call it art?

Simply protest? Or Art?

There may be a standard term out there in the scholarly or art critic discourse for this precise type of art, but if there is, I do not know it. What this Queens Museum blog post, and I, are referring to is engaging in flat-out social activist activities — whether it be a protest poster, a march or sit-in, a stand where you sell or give away something in order to raise awareness for a cause, organizing communal/public vegetable gardens, or volunteering at, e.g. a soup kitchen or hospital — and then calling it “art” or “artistic practice.”

This is only extremely tentative, but my initial reaction was to, first, say that one key element is simply whether or not it is called “art” by its creators/organizers, and whether it is called “art” by critics or scholars. I think the difference is largely in how it is conceptualized. One person might engage in a given action or activity out of (more or less) purely political motives; she might make all organizational, logistical, and aesthetic decisions about the project based chiefly on how effective they will be towards successfully achieving the political goal. And others might see this activity, and might analyze it, describe it, through a political or social sciences lens. And then someone else might engage in precisely the same activity, but might choose to see the performative and discursive aspects of the act itself as being of chief importance over (or equal with) the success of the political aims. This person might call themselves an artist, and call what they are doing “artistic practice.” And others might examine the act, conceptualize it, describe it, in terms of art, aesthetics, or performance. Somewhere in there, I think, may be the answer. Not solely, simply, a matter of calling it art or not calling it art, but, truly, conceiving of it and conceptualizing its meaning differently, on a very fundamental basis.

Or, to touch upon a slightly different perspective of a closely related interpretation, perhaps what separates it is simply its cleverness and intertextuality. A protest that is powerfully clear in its targets, its aims, and its methods, may be art in the sense of the argument that everything is art, because everything contains aesthetic and performative aspects, and deeper meanings. But, when a social act is not clear in its targets, its aims, or its methods, when its purpose or meaning is not readily apparent, but requires some interpretation, discursive or intertextual references, or the like in order to understand – in short, when it’s clever – does that make it more strongly, more definitively, “art”?

As for the other question — why call it art? What does the person classifying it as such have to gain (or to lose)? — I leave it open.

What do you think? What makes an act of social engagement or protest “art”? What distinguishes it from purer, “non-art,” forms of social or political engagement?

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Somehow, despite going to the Metropolitan Museum basically all my life, I never realized before that they have a research library. Walk in through the main entrance, make like you’re going to go up the big main staircase, and then instead go left, and boom, there it is, the Thomas J. Watson Library. It’s a non-browsing library, meaning you have to request the books you want through a request system; there are minimal shelves to walk along and browse to just sort of see what you find. Though, if you’d like to do that, there’s the Nolen Library, on the ground level, accessible via the Education Entrance (over on the left side of the building, not up the big steps on the outside).

The entrance to the Watson Library, in the Spanish courtyard/patio room to the left of the main staircase. Photo from Art Library Crawl.

Most museums, you might be surprised to learn, do in fact maintain libraries. Some are more accessible to the public than others, and some are distributed throughout the museum’s curatorial departments rather than stored in a single place. The Freer-Sackler’s library is collected in one place, for example, but I know the Asian Art library books at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston are held within the offices of the Asian Art department, and there’s no librarian or reference desk or anything like that within those offices – just the shelves, directly accessible by the staff. If there is a single central library of the MFA, I’m not sure where it is (turns out it’s down the street, at a completely separate building). I gather the Met has departmental libraries like this as well, but, in any case, the Watson Library is a nice, centralized place where researchers – not just museum staff, but anyone above college-age who registers and is there to do serious research – can make use of books from any of the Met’s libraries.

And what a library it is.

Some of the new sections of the American Wing have computer terminals where visitors can search through the collections, and the libraries. Poking around in there one day, I discovered that the Metropolitan’s libraries have a surprising number of relatively obscure books that I thought I should like to take a look at – mainly stuff about Okinawan painting, which kind of surprised me given how limited the Met’s own collection of Okinawan works, and how limited their history of doing exhibitions about Okinawa. And, I discovered at that time how easy it is to register to use the library, and to make requests for books. I went home and browsed more seriously, went through the online registration process, and electronically requested several books. Within a few days, I had emails telling me my books were ready.

I walked into the library, and spoke first with a librarian at the entrance, who helped me finish the registration process and get oriented with the library. She could not have been kinder, more friendly, more welcoming. Not that there’s anything wrong with the rest of the museum, at all, but as soon as I stepped into the library, it was like a whole different world, where suddenly I was no longer just one of a gazillion faceless visitors, but was now a respected, valued, researcher. All of the staff I spoke to were just unbelievably kind and friendly, beyond any other library, even, that I’ve ever used.

At many libraries, you have to go up to a desk and give them your name and they’ll provide you with the books you requested. Nothing wrong with that. But here, there are a series of shelves, organized alphabetically, and you just pick up your own books. There’s an openness to this approach that implies, I feel, a degree of respect, and of belonging, and of access, that you’re not someone we need to protect the books from, or protect the library from, but rather that you’re someone we trust, and welcome. Just as if I were a regular, or as if I were staff or something. Walk in as if I know what I’m doing, find my name, take down my books, as if I’ve done this a hundred times. There were a number of small side-rooms, and I’m not sure what all of them contain, but one seemed to be the main reading room, with maybe 16 or so nice big wooden tables for you to sit and do your work. There are outlets, free wifi, and access to a wide range of electronic resources, such as JSTOR. This last bit is especially wonderful, as I know that many other museums do not spring for JSTOR or other such resources for their staff, let alone for visitors. It can be very expensive, of course, to maintain subscriptions to such services, and with such a relatively small staff (tens of curators, maybe, at a large museum? Far less, of course, at a much smaller institution), there is a compelling argument to be made that it’s not really worth it, especially when each department, or each staff member, requests or requires various additional databases or resources for their specialty area… There is a certain logic to it, especially when it comes to the financial bottom line, but at the same time, I cannot help but think it bordering on the absurd that museum directors, department chairs, and curators prominent in their field, who need to do research in order to write catalog entries, gallery labels, etc., need to ask their interns & volunteers – college kids with access to JSTOR, etc., through their schools – to get articles and such for them. So, it’s really great that the Met provides this resource not only to its own staff, but to visiting researchers. Anyone who works at any museum in the city that doesn’t provide such resources for its own staff can come to the Met and get access.

Finally, the scanners at the Watson Library are incredible. For me, personally, scanners are so crucial. I do not know yet what I’ll have access to at the UCSB libraries when I start my PhD there next month, but especially when it comes to journals and other non-circulating materials, I love to skip out on paying for photocopies, and scan (for free, and in color) anything and everything I want or need, to be used later. The Univ. of Hawaii Hamilton Library has some pretty nice flatbed scanners over in the Science Wing (aka the Hamilton Addition), which have easy-to-use software that allows you to scan to PDF and create whole PDF documents instead of folders full of JPEGs. But, the scanners at the Watson Library are easily the best, most incredible scanners I’ve ever seen. They use some kind of overhead camera or scanner, so that you place the book open, facing up, which puts a lot less stress on the spine and the pages than squashing it face-down against a sheet of glass. The camera uses a laser-finder to determine the focus, and scans it very quickly, digitally determining how to divide the scanned image into left and right page, and arranging them into a PDF. The system sometimes has difficulty, when the book isn’t centered properly, when it’s too big, or when you’re not holding the pages down flat enough, but otherwise I have never seen an easier-to-use system. One giant button that says Scan, and another giant button that says “Save to USB or Email”, with smaller buttons nearby with an array of easy-to-understand and easy-to-use settings options.

When I had some difficulties with the machines, I asked one of the librarians, “oh, excuse me, I’m so sorry to bother you, but..” and she could not have been more friendly and polite about it. There was not the slightest indication that I was in fact interrupting or bothering her – she was so helpful, so accommodating.

All in all, I was blown away by my brief experience with the Watson Library. It is such a wonderful, welcoming, friendly place to work. If only I were more permanently/regularly based in New York, now that I know about it, I would make use of this library all the time. For any of you looking to do any kind of art history research, I very much recommend that if you find yourself in New York, you take some time to check out not just the NYPL or Columbia or whatever other resources you might normally think of first, but to also give the Metropolitan a try. Given how difficult it can be to get into Columbia’s libraries, to request things from off-site at NYPL, or to wait and wait to get things from ILL at your own home institution, the Watson Library can be a beautiful, wonderful resource. And such a nice, relaxing space, too, to feel welcomed and to get your work done.

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“The Rising Sun with Flowers and Trees of the Four Seasons.” Sakai Hôitsu, with calligraphy by Kazan’in Yoshinori. c. 1820-1828. Ink and color on silk. Gitter-Yelen Collection.

Prior to last week, I had no idea that Sakai Hôitsu (1761-1828) would soon become one of my favorite artists. I was certainly familiar with the name, but I don’t think that I had a good sense of what his works were like, or what I thought of them. All of that uncertainty blew away, however, like clouds banished by the wind, once I came face-to-face with these three paintings in the Rinpa exhibit currently showing at the Metropolitan Museum. The triptych, depicting a rising sun with calligraphic inscription, flanked by flowers and trees representing the four seasons, froze me in my tracks.

The red autumn leaves in the top left form an imaginary diagonal with the stream next to the brilliant blue irises in the bottom right. Normally I don’t like to talk about diagonals and such, but here, across the void between the three paintings, it really seems to have a real effect, compositionally. The irises represent summer, while the cherry blossoms above them are the most standard symbol of spring; below the autumn leaves, in the bottom right, the distinctive shape of bamboo leaves, representing winter, can be seen.

It is these seasonal allusions, along with aspects of the overall style and techniques, that makes this piece (arguably) Rinpa. I say arguably because, unlike the Kanô school or the Katsukawa school, for example, in which artists studied directly under a master of that school, Rinpa is a much looser categorization of artists and artworks, as identified and categorized by art historians. The identification, therefore, of something as being in the Rinpa style is somewhat subjective. Rinpa artists are linked not by a direct lineage of students & masters, but by their intentions to emulate the style of Ogata Kôrin, who in turn was emulating & reviving the style of Tawaraya Sôtatsu and Hon’ami Kôetsu; Hôitsu studied under Kanô, Maruyama, ukiyo-e, and nanga artists, and, born roughly 50 years after Kôrin’s death, like most Rinpa artists likely considered himself a student or follower of Kôrin “in spirit,” if that’s the right word.

Yet, these Hôitsu works stand out from the typical Rinpa style in their spare use of gold, and the instead plain, blank silk used for the background. Most of the elements are comprised of a single solid area of color of a single hue, not an intricate complex of drawn-in details. While I find the intricate details in other works fascinating, and the degree of skill required to produce them truly amazing, it is this simplicity, this aesthetic of bright, bold colors, and a certain stark kind of cleanliness, that I find so stunning, so entrancing, about these Hôitsu pieces. The sun is perfectly round, and its red fades just perfectly, as do the reds of the autumn leaves, accented by the minimalist use of gold for the “bones” of the leaves. Nearly every element in the composition is described without black outline, but nevertheless retain a sharpness, a crispness, to their borders of each form that not only suggests the artist’s masterful skills, but which is a crucial element of this clean, crisp aesthetic. In these ways, Hôitsu’s work feels more like Nihonga than true Rinpa. Nihonga, or neo-traditional painting, did not emerge until the late 19th century, as the result of pressures to modernize (Westernize) painting, and to develop a “national” painting style, and also to preserve or keep alive traditional painting traditions; in Hôitsu’s time, traditional painting was very much alive, and was unthreatened. It thus certainly cannot properly be called Nihonga. But, similarly, Sôtatsu cannot truly be considered a Rinpa (“in the style of Kôrin”) artist since he lived a century before Kôrin; perhaps we can in a similar fashion consider Hôitsu a Nihonga painter before Nihonga. To my eye, the cleanliness of his aesthetic resembles the works of late 19th and early 20th century Nihonga painters much more than it does the dense, heavy-feeling, complex compositions of earlier Rinpa artists.

Hôitsu’s use of tarashikomi, a wet color-bleeding technique strongly associated with Rinpa, can be clearly seen in the tree trunk. But here, too, it is perfectly controlled. On one level, it is easy to see the tree trunk as a random blotch of color, as if one spilled watercolors onto the paper and it bled uncontrollably; but, this tree trunk is at the same time precisely the shape it ought to be, the shape it needs to be, and the bits of green, bled into the brown, seem also to be precisely how they ought to be, as if Hôitsu were able to perfectly control the bleeding of the colors.

The mineral pigments, or iwa e no gu (岩絵具), used in traditional Japanese painting consist of various minerals, ground up to a very fine powder, and suspended in an animal glue called nikawa. I am told it does not blend like oil paints, and in order to produce a different shade, one cannot simply blend paints on your palette or on the painting, but rather one must use a different shade. A friend of mine chanced upon a store in Tokyo recently selling traditional mineral pigments, and the walls were lined with jars each containing a slightly different shade or hue from the last.

Tarashikomi, developed chiefly by Sôtatsu in the very early years of the 17th century, is a technique by which watery color-bleeding effects can be created, as seen in the tree trunk here. Extra water is added, allowing the colors, which function much like watercolors to begin with, to bleed into one another. The colors still don’t quite blend as they would in an oil painting, but, the effect is certainly a beautiful and effective one. Some artists, such as Hôitsu, take care to have this happen in an extremely controlled manner. Some, such as Nakamura Hôchû, in a piece displayed nearby, allow the colors more freedom as they bleed, resulting in a much less crisp-edged final result.

Frankly, beyond this vague idea of the perfectly clean and crisp aesthetic of this Hôitsu triptych, I couldn’t even say what it is really that I find so beautiful about it. But even the calligraphy, though difficult to read, seems perfectly cleanly done. The characters are neither too large nor too small; neither too dark nor too light (for the most part); and, perhaps most importantly, the overall space they occupy aligns perfectly with the red sun, compositionally. The thirty-one syllable waka, translated by curator John Carpenter, reads:


Akirakeki miyo zo to
yomo ni shirashimete
terasu hikage no
kumoru toki naki

Praise for the enlightened
reign of the emperor
spreads in all directions,
just as the light of the sun
shines in a cloudless sky.

I’m sure I don’t need to say much by way of interpreting this poem. The red sun, of course, a symbol of the emperor and of his enlightened power and benevolence radiating and illuminating; the four seasons representing the four directions, i.e. all of the realm. But, while I certainly appreciate a poem that is so direct and that so clearly relates to the iconography of the composition, it is, again, just the pure aesthetic impact, the sheer beauty of Hôitsu’s work which I find so entrancing.

These and many other works by Hôitsu will be featured in an exhibition at Japan Society in the fall, which I am sure will be excellent. (There is no webpage for the exhibit yet, but when there is, I’ll be sure to post it.) Meanwhile, a number of other stunning Hôitsu works will be rotated into the Metropolitan’s Rinpa exhibition beginning in September. Perhaps I will have to make a special trip back to the East Coast to see these.

All photos taken myself, in the Japanese galleries at the Metropolitan Museum, exposure brightened using Picasa. The three pieces can also be seen, in official photography, lined up immediately next to one another on the webpage of the Man’yôan Collection of Dr. Kurt Gitter and Alice Yelen, who own the artworks.

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This summer, and through January, the Japanese galleries at the Metropolitan Museum feature an exhibit entitled “Designing Nature: The Rinpa Aesthetic in Japanese Art.” I was excited for the idea of a Rinpa exhibit – bright colors, silver and gold, things in the style of the most famous works by Sôtatsu and Kôrin. Seeing the Matsushima screens in DC last summer was a special treat, and I was excited for more of that here in New York.

Perhaps I should start by talking a little bit about what Rinpa is. Unlike many schools of painting in Japanese art history, such as the Kanô school or the Tosa school, in which artists trained directly under masters from that school, and solidly identified themselves as belonging to that school, “Rinpa” is quite a bit looser. The word Rinpa (琳派) literally means something like “in the style of [Kô]rin,” referring to Ogata Kôrin (1658-1716), whose style, techniques, themes and overall approach the Rinpa artists sought to emulate. Some Rinpa artists may have considered themselves to be followers of Kôrin “in spirit,” or to be working “in the style of Kôrin,” but for the most part, Rinpa is a term applied roughly, loosely, to those artists who art historians identify as producing these types of works. Ironically, or amusingly, Kôrin, in fact, was emulating the style and themes of Tawaraya Sôtatsu and Hon’ami Kôetsu, who were active in the very early years of the 17th century, about 50 years before Kôrin was born. Works by Sôtatsu and Kôrin focused on classical (read: Heian period) yamato-e (“indigenous” “Japanese” painting) influences, rather than the Chinese-inspired styles used heavily by the Kanô and other schools; they used a lot of bright colors, a lot of gold and silver, and little black ink outline; they often made reference to classical themes, whether relatively directly, by depicting characters or scenes from Heian period stories such as the Tale of Genji, or indirectly through the use of flowers and other imagery. Rinpa works also made use of such imagery for purely decorative purposes, employing patterns and concerns of composition with a particular eye to pure aesthetics; importantly, also, Rinpa is one of the few styles or movements in traditional Japanese art which extends beyond one medium (e.g. painting), extending into calligraphy, lacquerwares, ceramics, and the like as well. This particular exhibition focuses almost exclusively on paintings and a few woodblock-printed books, but, drawing upon the legacy of Hon’ami Kôetsu and Ogata Kenzan (Kôrin’s brother), who are both known more for their calligraphy and ceramics than for painting, the movement certainly includes a wide range of types of objects. I have a friend who specializes in Rinpa, and who I’ve been seeing frequently at the Metropolitan the last few weeks – so, my apologies to him if my explanation is too simplistic, or omits any key points.

I wish that more of my exhibition reviews could comment more heavily on the narrative the exhibit tells, the way it is laid out, the way it is organized and presented. Though I’ve never studied exhibition design formally, I find these sorts of things fascinating. Plus, it makes for a better post, a more organized post, which comments on the exhibition itself, rather than on the individual pieces contained within. But, sometimes we find we are presented with exhibits that, if they have a narrative, or a logic of organization, they are not very obvious about it. And so, there is little to comment on.

Rinpa can be really wonderful. But, it can also get overwhelming quite easily. Like getting templed-out in Kyoto. Each one is beautiful, and wonderful, and amazing, but see too many at once, and they all just sort of blur together. After the fifth or sixth screen painting of birds & flowers or classical themes, I was finding it difficult to sustain my interest. Mind you, this is not a criticism of the exhibition, so much as just me coming to recognize or realize where my interests lie. After passing by numerous true masterpieces that I’m sure would have been fascinating and eminently gorgeous for someone else, but which simply didn’t grab me (for whatever reason), I found a set of pieces that absolutely did. I felt I could have stood there forever. So entranced was I by their beauty that I am devoting an entire blog post to this set of three hanging scroll paintings by Sakai Hôitsu. Keep an eye out for that post in coming days.

Of course, there are still plenty of other beautiful works in the exhibition, starting with the Pix-Cell Deer sculpture by Nawa Kôhei. I’m not positive how this relates to Rinpa, really, but it’s a gorgeous, and fun, piece, and all the more attractive for the way it is displayed at the Metropolitan. This is the same piece which not so long ago was on display at Japan Society, as part of the exhibition “Bye Bye Kitty.” I guess someone at the Met liked it so much that he saw to it that the museum acquire the sculpture once “Bye Bye Kitty” was done. Of course, I cannot complain or criticize with the way it was shown at Japan Society, but the way it is lit here, the glass, acrylic, and crystal spheres which encase this taxidermied deer sparkle and shine in the light. The deer, furthermore, is situated between several folding screen paintings, each covered in gold foil, which provide an elegant and beautiful backdrop for viewing the piece.

Most of the exhibition, however, is devoted to paintings. As beautiful as any of these pieces are in reproduction (here on the computer screen), I never cease to be astonished to rediscover how much more beautiful they are when viewed in person. Digital images cannot relate the textures of pigments on a ground, nor properly the scale of a piece. If you do not spend much time in museums, I invite you to go and make a visit. Pick a painting and spend some time with it. Look closely at the textures of pigments and of the blank areas of paper or silk, and look at how they interact. There is something truly wonderful about seeing a work in person, and, if you get the opportunity, to see it without any glass or anything else between you and the artwork.

An anonymous composition attributed to followers of Ogata Kôrin was one such work. Though not the most colorful piece, perhaps even downright drab, when looking at it in person, all the fine details of the differing colors and materials and how they are applied, come out. Looking purely at color and pattern, it is a pretty monochromatic (or monotonous) piece. But add texture into the mix, and it is actually a rather vibrant, complex artwork.

With its flowing river and dense composition of large trees in the foreground, it reminds me of one of Kôrin’s most famous works, a pair of folding screens depicting Red and White Plum Blossoms, which has been designated a National Treasure. The black stream with hints of gold in this work seems almost guaranteed to be drawing upon, or to be inspired by, that earlier Kôrin work. Tarashikomi, the watery color-bleeding effect characteristic of Rinpa, is used in a controlled way here, to give texture and character to rocks and tree trunks, while flecks of gold – not full squares of gold foil, but just scattered flecks – suffuse the scene.

Suzuki Kiitsu’s “Morning Glories” (asagao) is perhaps one of the most famous screen paintings in the Metropolitan’s collection of Japanese art. Frankly, I think it pales in comparison to the Yatsuhashi (Eight-Plank Bridge) and Irises screen by Kôrin (which will be on display come September), in terms of its fame, but nevertheless, the museum takes great pride in this piece, and I don’t blame them. In some ways, this piece strikes me as the perfect example of the decorative Rinpa aesthetic. It alludes to deeper meanings through the simple presence of the flowers, which imply resonances to various classical poems and stories that feature morning glories, but it is also very strongly (purely) decorative. The flowers do not grow straight up, limited by any effort to produce a realistic sense of space, or a setting in which the content of the painting takes place; rather, they twist across the gold-backed planes of the screens to produce a pattern that is decorative and aesthetically beautiful in its composition. The juxtaposition of deep blues and greens against a bright gold background, and the pattern in which they are arranged, reminds one of the aforementioned Kôrin Yatsuhashi/Iris screens, and of Kôrin’s Irises screen held by the Nezu Museum in Tokyo, both of which are among the most commonly seen examples, in for example art history survey textbooks, of the decorative attitude or style of the Rinpa aesthetic.

A smaller, darker screen of the same motif (morning glories) elsewhere in the exhibit, painted by Tawaraya Sôri, provides an interesting contrast. Sôri’s screen is short and wide, looking like something that would be put on a desk, or displayed in an alcove, rather than serving as a room divider or decorative backdrop as Kiitsu’s full-size screens might have. Sôri’s composition is also more restrained, leaving a lot more open space, and making the flowers seem more like accents, almost, rather than the main subject of the composition.

The exhibit also included a number of woodblock printed books reproducing designs by Ogata Kôrin, Sôtatsu, and others. The books are rather limited in their ability to reproduce subtleties of shading, and include limited color (in order to keep costs down); thus they are certainly not the most attractive art objects, as compared to proper paintings. Yet, they do have their appeal. And, perhaps more importantly, they have great historical significance. Though the gallery labels fail to discuss this at all, these books would have served as guides or inspiration for artists trying to understand how to paint in the Rinpa style (or how to paint, period), and would also have served to provide commoner consumers with the opportunity to see and appreciate Rinpa paintings. Of course, the books cannot be taken as an accurate reproduction of the paintings, not by a long-shot, but for the average guy on the street in 19th century Japan, I suppose it’s better than nothing. Including these books here is, in terms of exhibit design and concept, I think, a real plus point. It takes the exhibit beyond being a discussion rooted purely in artistic style and technique, and beyond simply providing the museum visitor with something pretty to look at, and takes it into the realm of discussing actual historical context and impact. How did people know about, or experience, Rinpa art? For most people, it was through books like these, since the actual paintings were very expensive, and were of course quite limited in quantity. This aspect of the role of the books as painting guides is especially important for Rinpa, since few Rinpa artists studied directly under other Rinpa artists; I don’t know the historical details of whether this holds true for any particular artist, but it is easy to imagine someone being either self-taught, or studying under a Kanô, Tosa, or ukiyo-e painting master, and then looking at these books for inspiration, to start deviating from their master’s themes and motifs, and to start producing Rinpa works.

Finally, a set of a different kind of woodblock printed books are displayed in the print room towards the end of the exhibition. Kamisaka Sekka’s three-volume set entitled Momoyogusa (百々世草), or “Flowers of a Hundred Worlds”, is so dense with color and design that I thought each page was hand-painted; that these were unique, handpainted books. In fact, they are mass-produced woodblock printed books, albeit very expensive, high-end ones, with deep colors and extensive use of silver and gold. The first time I heard the name Kamisaka Sekka, it was attached to a hand-drum he designed (he designed the lacquer box and cloth cover for the drum as well), and so I have always associated him with lacquerwares and the like. However, as it turns out, he was a truly incredible painter. At least one of his paintings, a colorful, charming depiction of the 36 Poetry Immortals (Sanjûrokkasen), will be on display after the September rotation.

It is difficult to display books in an exhibition. The books are, by necessity, under glass, and even if they weren’t, we cannot have visitors touching the books, turning the pages. In this Rinpa exhibit, the Met has rectified this problem by first of all displaying multiple copies of the books, each open to a different page; but, also, by providing touchscreens that allow a visitor to virtually page through every page of all three volumes. Another set of touchscreens in the George Nakashima-furnished room overlooking the Temple of Dendur display pages from another album of Rinpa paintings.

I had the great fortune of a sneak-peek at some of the works that will be going up in rotation in September. I am not sure which pieces are coming down, so if one has the chance, it would probably be best to visit the exhibition at least twice – both over the summer, and after the September change-up. It looks like they’ve reserved some of the most stunning pieces – including the Kamisaka Sekka “36 Poetry Immortals” painting, and one by Sakai Ôho of a maple in autumn – for September. I wish I were going to be able to be here to see them installed in the gallery. However, in the meantime, all of the pieces in the show (for both rotations) can be seen online at the exhibition’s webpage.

Designing Nature: The Rinpa Aesthetic in Japanese Art is up at the Metropolitan Museum, 1000 Fifth Ave, New York NY, from now until January 13, 2013, with a rotation in mid-to-late September. A catalog for the exhibit will become available in late September as well.

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As usual, I’m behind a bit, so this isn’t exactly breaking news, but the New York Times announced about a week ago the appointment of a new head of the Asian Art department at the Metropolitan Museum. James Watt, who has headed the department for ten years, is retiring, and Maxwell Hearn, currently curator of Chinese art, who has been at the Metropolitan since 1971, will be taking over. Both men are giants in the field, producing some excellent Chinese art exhibitions over the many years they’ve been at the Met.

Photo copyright Ruth Fremson/The New York Times.

In a video attached to the article (no embedding possible, it would seem), Hearn shares with us a Chinese handscroll painting, and how they should be viewed.

As seems fairly typical for this sort of article, we are told how it is that Mr Hearn got interested in Asian art to begin with, and how he secured his job at the Metropolitan. Many of the older generation got their start in ways nearly impossible for one of us today. To take a few examples, Gerald Curtis was hired by Columbia before he even finished his PhD, as one of the only experts in the US on Japanese politics, at a time when, I guess, Columbia was one of the first universities in the US to seek to teach East Asian politics; the late Kenneth Butler, director of the Inter-University Center for Japanese Language Studies in Yokohama for many many years, claimed to have been one of only a literal handful of American men who spoke Japanese at a certain time in the late 40s or 1950s (excluding Japanese-American native speakers, of course), and so had little difficulty moving up through the ranks to play an important role in the Occupation and in Japanese Studies back home in the US afterwards.

For whatever reason, I had assumed that Hearn’s story would be the same. And perhaps, to some extent, it is. But, reading about how he got his first job at the Met as the result of the networking connections and guidance and help of his Princeton advisor, Wen Fong, who called in favors, or perhaps was asked by the Met to suggest his best students, or something to that effect. Is that really so different from how I expect to get my foot in the door?

In any case, Mr Hearn (Dr Hearn?) has been in the Chinese art department in one capacity or another for 27 years, and has played a part in a great many major exhibitions, and in making the Chinese garden a reality. As the NY Times article relates, the museum had just finished re-doing its A/C ducts or something to that effect, and Thomas Hoving vetoed any idea of undoing that expensive work to install some new section with skylights and such, altering the ceiling and the A/C ducts within it. Still, Brooke Astor, a prominent and super wealthy board member (as board members tend to be), put up the funds to make it financially reasonable and doable, and so the beautiful Chinese garden which stands today at the center of the Chinese galleries was built.

The Times article goes on to discuss some of the major challenges facing Asian art today. Hearn’s story of how he got involved in Asian art, and in working at the Met, may not be that different from what I hope will become my own, but exhibitions simply cannot be held like they used to, and collections cannot be grown like they used to. Asian art has become too expensive for even large museums like the Met to afford (that’s a scary thought!!), and loans from Chinese and Japanese museums are more difficult and more expensive than ever (well, I shouldn’t say that – I don’t know the politics of borrowing objects during the Mao / pre-Nixon era when the US & China weren’t talking to each other and the Cold War was in full swing, but anyway) …. It makes me nervous and worried what things will be like if/when I ever become Curator myself. But it’s great to see it discussed in the paper like this, and to be given some idea what it is that’s actually going on.

My best wishes to both James Watt and Maxwell Hearn, as things change hands and move forward at the Metropolitan. Looking forward to some jump-starting of the Japanese exhibitions. Maybe? Please?


Meanwhile, in France, President Sarkozy has apparently stirred up some controversy by suggesting the establishment of a museum of national history, something I am amazed to hear does not already exist in France.

The controversy is a familiar one. Whose history, which history, is “French” history? It is one we discussed almost to no end in my Museum Studies seminar last term, and is indeed very much a 21st century, post-modern, post-colonial issue that cannot seem to be solved or allowed to rest.

I can appreciate how this issue might be a difficult and touchy one in a place like the United States, especially in Hawaii, and also in places such as Australia. Where do aborigines fit into Australian history, i.e. the history of a former British colony, now white-dominated country?

But, in France, where there is no indigenous population that has been displaced or overthrown, and where there is in fact a singular national ethnic group – the French, as in the white French descended from the Gauls and Franks and Normans and whoever else – it is a very different situation. Now, I don’t presume to be any kind of expert on French society or societal issues, but basically, unlike the United States, France is a nation-state, a state (country) that controls territory roughly co-terminus with the traditional lands of a single nation (ethnic group) – the French. It is not a colonized place like Hawaii or Australia, or a country whose borders and identity has only come into existence in recent decades, such as, oh, I dunno, Ghana. France, like China, has in one form or another, existed for at least 2000 years, ruled by the Gauls or Franks or the French.

When it comes to US history, the history of a country founded and formed by immigrants, I think that to some extent the argument that Chinese-American history is just as much a part of American history as Jewish-American history or Irish-American history has some real validity to it. There is no such thing as US culture, US society, US anything without blacks, East Asians, Irish, Germans, Scandinavians, Latinos…. But there is a such thing as French culture that stands on its own, that others can adopt, can assimilate into, if they choose to. As one of my professors once said, “egalitarianism in France means everyone having equal opportunity to choose to become French,” meaning that the French have their own elite high culture, and you can choose to adopt it and become cultured if you so choose. What I am getting at is the idea that, in theory, ideally (ideologically?), French culture is a monolithic and static thing, that did not form from a mishmash of the cultures of other peoples, like US culture or Hawaiian ‘local’ culture1, but comes from the singular identity of the French people. Now, I do not mean to argue this point too strongly, for fear of coming across as right-wing or something, or worse, racist, but I am simply trying to be clear, from my point of view as a historian.

It is easy for the journalist, the activist, the politician, the social justice blogger, who have their heads firmly, solely, in the present, to look around at a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic France and assume that this current situation defines France, and that any argument otherwise is racist or imperialist or something. Yet, there is a such thing as France that is different from what we see today, different from something which should be subject to the political attitudes and trends in political correctness of today.

We are talking about a museum of history, and there has been a lot of French history without the Vietnamese, the Arabs, the Algerians. It’s called “pre-colonial” or “pre-modern” history. There were no Vietnamese in France during the reign of Charlemagne, and as late as the reign of Louis XVI, long after France first planted its flag in Canada and in many other parts of the world, there was still at that time no such thing as Algeria or Algerians.

Societies and cultures change, and today in the 21st century, French identity may indeed be on the way to becoming, as Wikipedia has it, more a matter of French citizenship, “regardless of ancestry,” than a singular ethnic identity. But that does not mean that we can or should read this back through history – reading current situations back into history is among the worst of the historians’ fallacies, and while historians know to watch out for it, and to be careful not to do it, non-historians commit this error all the time. Just because today’s French society consists of Vietnamese, Arabs, Algerians, and people from any number of other origins does not mean that their stories constitute “French history.” They may constitute some portion of French history, and I do think that any French history museum that purports to relate a relatively full, thorough account of the country’s history needs to address colonialism and imperialism, inter-cultural exchanges and influences, etc.

As the NY Times article relates, Sarkozy has stated that France “has a problem with Islam,” the implication being, though not directly quoted or discussed in the article, that he believes this is a major problem to be addressed and corrected.

It is true that any museum is ideological, and that in creating such a museum, curators will need to tread very carefully to present a version of events that is both accurate and “true” – not sullied by political correctness or conscious intentional efforts to shade or color things are certain way – and at the same time acceptable. The museum must not be too pro-colonialist, of course, but neither should it be too anti-colonialist. It must treat Islam fairly, to combat the issues and difficulties so prominent in French society today, not decrying or disparaging it, which would of course only worsen the problem, but neither should such a museum extol Islam, a totally political move that would have everything to do with political motives of today, whitewashing things and completely failing to put into proper perspective the violence committed on both sides against the other – Muslims and Christians – for hundreds and hundreds of years.

Nicolas Offenstadt, a professor of history at the Sorbonne, argues that “To know about French Algeria you need to know about Algeria before France arrived there … If we need any history museum, it would be a world history museum, not a French history museum, to give us a real perspective on who we are, and what is France today.” But while he accuses “The very idea of a specifically French history museum [as] ideological,” his suggestion seems to me just as ideological, if not more so. To have a museum, or any accounting of history, be as objective, fair, accurate, and balanced as possible, it needs to be organized, not based on anything tied to the present, any idea of better understanding who we are today, but rather, in being tied to understanding who we once were in the past. A museum focusing on the impacts of France around the world and/or on the countries and cultures from which prominent minorities in France come, is a museum that picks and chooses and is very selective in what it addresses and in what manner, for the very ideological purpose of furthering certain political views – certain liberal, anti-imperialist, progressive, pro-multicultural views – which are ultimately, it would seem, opposed to the idea of a distinctly French people or French culture prior to the influx of peoples from around the world.

Some of the words Sarkozy has chosen do in fact make me nervous, and worry that he is politically motivated and ideological – stating that “French people want to reappropriate their history.”

But my point is simply to say that there is a such thing as French history prior to imperialism and multiculturalism, and that this, from Charlemagne down to the 16th century, should be understood on its own merits, and not purely or primarily from a post-modern, post-colonial, point of view that acts to serve 2011 politics. One must of course tread lightly when discussing the Crusades and certain other topics, but the Hundred Years War and countless other aspects of French history should be addressed in a manner that helps us better understand the 13th century, not the 21st. Twisting history to serve purposes of the present is pretty much the definition of ideological, and it is what we should avoid, whether it be twisting history to serve a nationalistic purpose, glorifying the white French ethnic nation and its history (as some are accusing Sarkozy of advocating), or whether it be twisting history to serve a post-colonial, pro-minorities sort of agenda.

I do not follow French news or situations particularly closely, but from what one hears in the news, it seems France is something of an example of the formerly imperial nation-state struggling to find a post-modern identity. It seems to be struggling more than England or Germany, more than China or Japan, and one can predict history books 100 years from now, or for that matter, journal articles which may already be being written, using it as an ideal case study for how societies deal with these issues. How does a nation-state, built on nearly 2000 years of being its own specific, distinct people – the white French people, descended from Gauls and Franks, from Charlemagne and Louis XVI and Napoleon, none of whom were Arab, Algerian, Tahitian, or Vietnamese – refashion itself into the kind of post-modern state that allows people of different ethnic backgrounds to be just as French, just as integrated and accepted, as the ethnic French themselves?

Whatever happens, continued developments should prove quite interesting.

(1) Hawaiian ‘local’ culture, as distinguished from native Hawaiian culture, derives from the interaction of Portuguese, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Filipino, Hawaiian, Samoan, and other peoples and their cultures, resulting in a unique ‘local’ culture exemplified by pidgin English, plate lunch and other typical ‘local’ foods, etc.

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Sometimes I find myself quite well-informed about certain exhibitions I wish to go to; other times, I’m afraid I don’t quite do my research. When I visited Boston just past Christmas, I had hoped to go to the Peabody Essex Museum, but missed out. I knew they were having some show of treasures from the Forbidden Palace, but I basically figured it was just another paintings / ceramics / etc. show, and it wasn’t the end of the world if I missed it. Which I did, on account of the snowpocalypse, as they’re calling it. I was home in New York for a week earlier this month, saw that the Metropolitan was now having some show of treasures from the Forbidden City – didn’t make the connection – but boy oh boy am I glad that I took the time and made sure to see the exhibit.

It turns out that The Emperor’s Private Paradise: Treasures from the Forbidden City is a stunning, breathtaking, incredible exhibit, just about as close as one imagines they could ever get to actually transporting the Forbidden City into the inside of the Metropolitan Museum. Hardly just a show of paintings, ceramics, and other relatively easily transported treasures, this show included window trimmings and door frames, actual thrones that the Qianlong Emperor himself (presumably) actually sat on, and all kinds of other things that I never expected would ever leave their place, let alone leave Beijing, let alone leave China.

The exhibition focuses exclusively on the “Qianlong Gardens,” completed around 1776, at the orders of the Qianlong Emperor (r. 1735-96), an emperor particularly known for his love of art, and for his embrace of Western ideas and influences. It was under the Qianlong Emperor that a great many treasures of painting entered the Imperial collection, and that the Italian Jesuit Giuseppe Castiglione was welcomed into the Court and commissioned to create a great many Western-style, relatively realistic, oil paintings of the emperor and of other subjects. A great many of the most famous Chinese paintings today bear the seal of the Qianlong Emperor.

The “garden,” really a sub-palace all its own, consisting of 27 buildings and pavilions, was intended to be Qianlong’s retirement palace. But he never retired, abdicating three years before his death, and continuing to wield power during that time. As the Emperor had a separate Summer Palace, the buildings of this retirement palace are grouped very close together, for greater warmth in the winter months.

Upon entering the exhibition, we are presented with a pair of large vases to the left, with a photograph plastered on the walls to give the impression of looking out into a garden or bamboo grove; and to the right, a door frame or wall decoration, with, beyond it, a wall painting that employs Western-style linear perspective to great effect, giving the illusion of being led deeper into a larger space. The Qianlong Emperor loved these kinds of illusions, and one can see why. Naive though it may be by Western oil painting standards, or modern photography & digital media standards, in terms of its relative lack of realism, the illusion still works – the painting still does not fail to produce the effect it was intended to, and definitely impresses.

Above: A perspectival illusion wall painting from the Supreme Chamber for Cultivating Harmony. Image from Metropolitan Museum website; you can find images of other works from the show, with curators’ descriptions, by clicking here.

We are then presented with two portraits of the Qianlong Emperor, one of which is one of multiple versions of the famous portrait you see here. Seeing it on slides, in books, and here on the computer screen does not compare to the actual artwork. The details of the robes, chair, and face are unbelievable, the pigments are thick and bold, and there’s just something really impressive, and truly breath-taking (yes, I know my adjectival vocabulary is a bit limited) about the way the colors are employed. The way the red shows through the gold of the chair is really incredible, and helps the image seem more real and more three-dimensional…. At first this may seem an extremely traditional & Chinese painting, and it is of course both of those things; but having focused so much in recent semesters on the adaptation of elements of Western artistic techniques into East Asian neo-traditional arts, it becomes obvious to me those non-traditional elements which have been employed here. Individualized, realistic, detailed depiction of the face; the use of shading and shadow to imply roundness of form and volume; and of course, linear perspective.

It was really wonderful to get to examine these paintings so closely. I’ve seen exhibits where paintings are kept back in full display boxes designed for, for example, standing folding screens, blocking you from getting anywhere near close enough to really examine the piece and appreciate the details. That was not a problem here – the vitrines were nice and shallow, allowing you to get within inches of the surface of the painting, and allowing the details to really shine.

Among other objects I was amazed to see was a paper & wood model of one of the halls & gardens, presumably created as part of planning and preparation to build the palace originally, back in the 18th century. That such a thing still survives is fairly unexpected, but that it should leave the archives and come all the way to Boston and New York is astonishing.

In addition to the inclusion of a number of 18th century Chinese treasures from the Metropolitan’s own collection, the exhibition included a very short, but well-done, video virtual tour of one section of the Palace (the juanqinzhai), and some displays on conservation efforts. If you have ever studied Chinese architecture at all, even in an intro survey art history class, you’re probably familiar with the Qianlong Emperor’s indoor theatre, with the ceiling painted with blue sky and purple wisteria on a trellis to give the illusion of the summer sky, with linear perspective wall paintings giving the impression of a much larger space, and of hidden doors behind mirrors leading from one room to the next. It was fun to be reminded of this room, and to realize where it fits in to the wider story – where in the Forbidden City it is located, and which emperor (Qianlong) it was built for.

Conservation efforts have been ongoing since 2001, if not earlier, and have employed, to the greatest extent possible, expert craftsmen in various traditional specialties, who had to be sought out and recruited from all over the country. As we learn in the exhibition, it is in large part due to conservation efforts begun in 2001 that these objects have been removed from their original context to begin with, and are therefore a bit freer to travel, before being permanently reinstalled in the Palace.

Having spent a lot of time in Japan, I think I’ve gotten a fairly good sense of a lot of the basic aesthetics, forms, and elements of Japanese traditional architecture and interior design; but it would be a fallacy to think the Chinese to be fairly similar. While nowhere else in China could compare to a Palace, of course, still, I think this exhibition – in addition to being visually stunning – really helped me gain a better understanding of what sorts of ways the Chinese traditionally decorated: with paintings and works of calligraphy incorporated into intricately carved wooden frames, and the wonderfully ironic and schizophrenic way that the Emperor embraced both signs of extravagant wealth and luxury, and signs of the rustic, simple, spare lifestyle of the cultural/moral/intellectual elite scholar-literati.

The Emperor’s Private Paradise is showing at the Metropolitan Museum, 1000 Fifth Avenue, New York City, until May 1st. I strongly encourage you, if you have the chance, to make a visit. This is not just an exhibit – it’s an experience: as close as we might ever get in New York to the feeling of actually being inside the Imperial Palace.

All images are taken from Wikipedia / Wikimedia Commons, and are used under a Creative Commons license, except where indicated otherwise.

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