Courtesan in Her Boudoir (detail); Utagawa Toyokuni (1769-1825); Tokugawa period, c. 1818-25; hanging scroll, ink and color on silk. Collection of John C. Weber.
Robe with willow tree and Chinese characters; Tokugawa period, 18th century; silk, couched gold threads, silk embroidery, paste-resist dyed, stencil dyed. Collection of John C. Weber.
Hotei Reaching for the Moon; Session Shukei (1504-89); Muromachi period, 16th century; hanging scroll, ink on paper. Collection of John C. Weber.
Minneapolis Institute of Arts
2400 Third Avenue South
Arts of Japan: The John C. Weber Collection
February 24-May 25, 2008
The Arts of Japan exhibition reflects the efforts of Dr. John C. Weber, a New Yorker who began collecting Japanese art only a decade ago. Despite his recent arrival on the Japanese art scene, Weber has quickly established a reputation as a serious and disciplined collector. Informing his approach is a belief that the objects that enter his collection must significantly add to the holdings of American collections of Japanese art, rather than duplicate objects already represented.
The collection reveals Dr. Weber's discriminating eye and high standards. There are elegant poetry scrolls reflecting Japan’s literary accomplishments and courtly tastes. Luxury lacquers and ceramics of surprising modernity belie painstaking craftsmanship. Textiles of high design and astonishing technique — many of which are included at the MIA venue only — provide a glimpse into Japan’s sophisticated fashions. Ravishing images of courtesans and the opulent settings in which they lived offer insight into two centuries of Japanese “pleasure” quarters and life in the “floating world.” Providing a quiet and contemplative contrast to these colorful works are restrained ink paintings and somber ceramics associated with the tea ceremony and life within Buddhist monasteries. Rich in painted folding screens, the Weber collection provides breathtaking panoramas of epic battles, voyeuristic glimpses into aristocratic mansions, and bird’s-eye views of places long renowned for their scenic beauty.
“Dr. Weber has put together a world-class collection in record time,” said Matthew Welch, curator of Japanese and Korean art at the MIA. “At the same time, he maintains exceedingly high standards through his own keen intuition and his willingness to consult with specialists.”
With the help and advice of Dr. Julia Meech, an independent scholar and now curator of the Weber collection, he began acquiring Japanese textiles in 1996. As he learned more about Japanese culture and artistic movements, Weber’s collecting efforts grew to include paintings, lacquers, ceramics, and, most recently, sculpture, ranging from the 12th to the 20th century.
The Arts of Japan opens with a gallery devoted to works created in the service of Buddhism. Expressive calligraphies in pure ink by Japanese Zen priests are hung near red Negoro lacquers, once part of daily life within monastic centers. Monks served rice from a monumental lacquered container, and offerings of rice wine were placed on an altar in a wide-shouldered bottled called a heishi. Japan’s most famous film director, Akira Kurosawa (1910-98), owned a graceful heishi now in the Weber collection and included in this exhibition.
First introduced to Japan by returning monks who visited the Chinese mainland, ink painting is the focus of the second gallery. Japanese ink painters from the fourteenth to the seventeenth century reinterpreted Chinese models from the Sung and Yuan dynasties. For instance, a minutely rendered landscape pictures a temple by moonlight amid towering mountains — a scene more reminiscent of southern China than Japan’s gentle topography. The scroll’s attenuated proportions—nearly 32 inches high but only seven inches wide — heighten its drama. Some of the paintings feature historic and legendary personages associated with Confucianism and Buddhism. One excellent example by Sesson Shukei (c. 1504-89) depicts Hotei, the tenth-century wandering Chinese monk, seated and gazing rapturously at the moon. Another, by Kenko Shokei (active in the late fifteenth century) shows Shoki, an eighth century Confucian scholar, who vowed to protect the emperor from demons, riding atop a ferocious tiger.
New aesthetic ideals developed in Japan around 1600. These were epitomized by the appreciation of art within the context of tea gatherings. The third gallery displays the subtle works associated with this highly refined pastime. Among the tea ceramics on view are five early 17th century serving dishes in the Green Oribe style, named after the famous tea master Furuta Oribe (1543–1615). Whimsical patterns of drying persimmons emerge from rivulets of grassy green glaze in a design that appears surprisingly modern. The ceramics are displayed alongside fragments of handscrolls created in the 12th and 13th centuries but later mounted as hanging scrolls for display in a tea room. Featuring poems by lauded poets from Japan’s classical past, and written in elegant script on delicately decorated paper, these scrolls would have helped a tea master introduce a literary element to his tea gatherings. One such fragment depicts an imaginary poetry contest between two poets from different eras. As if in conversation, three poems by each poet are written above their portraits, each suggesting the melancholy loneliness of lost love. The women themselves, with their long flowing black tresses and multilayered robes, are finely rendered in pure ink.
Japan’s “golden age” occurred in the late Heian period (897-1185) when the power of the imperial court reached its apogee. During that time, the Japanese developed the kana script, which enabled them to record their language with ease and liberated them from the more complicated Chinese writing system. Kana provided the aristocracy with a freedom of expression that led to a flowering of native poetry and prose, including romantic novels like The Tale of Genji (Genji monogatari ). On view in the fourth gallery are paintings inspired by these classical tales. The mid-seventeenth century “Battle of Carriages” tells a story of a rivalry between Prince Genji’s wife and his lover. A battle erupts into a dramatic confrontation while on a crowded processional route as the women’s groomsmen jostle to position their carriages in the best location.
Dramatic folding screens are highlighted in galleries five and six. These impressive objects helped warlords and aristocrats heighten the splendor of their castles and palaces. A pair of seventeenth-century screens shows countless warriors in full regalia as they rush headlong into battle. One screen shows the mounted attack of the general Minamoto Yoshitsune and his troops on the enemy’s encampment. Its mate shows a battle at sea as the forces of the Taira clan attempt to escape from the advancing Minamoto warriors. Nature is the focus of a pair of screens by Tosa Mitsuoki (1617–91). Here, the famous cherry trees of Mount Yoshino in full blossom are seen through bands of golden mist. Another pair, by Ishida Yutei (1721–86), depicts a flock of red-crested cranes. Each of the thirty-six near life-sized birds is carefully rendered with scientific precision, but the shapes of their black and white bodies and sinuous necks create a compelling abstract pattern across the folds of the screen.
The erotic milieu of the licensed pleasure quarters and the courtesans and entertainers who peopled the “floating world,” are the topic of the seventh gallery. The Weber collection is particularly strong in images of sumptuously clad beauties, whose elaborate coiffeurs, affected gestures, and accoutrements provide a glimpse into their rarified world. A painting by Kubo Shunman (1757-1820) shows three courtesans and two child attendants on promenade beneath blossoming cherry trees within the Yoshiwara, Japan’s most renowned pleasure quarter. Their garments and hairdos indicate the rank of each woman within the quarter’s highly stratified hierarchy. For example, the central figure’s elaborate hairdo with multiple combs and pins indicates that she is an oiran, or “flower excelling all others,” while the young woman behind her, who has attained the rank of shinzo, serves as her attendant as she learns the art of entertaining. In “Courtesan in Her Boudoir,” the painter Utagawa Toyokuni (1769-1825) shows the unabashed sensuality of a woman fresh from lovemaking, her robe loosely tied while she arranges her hair.
The Weber collection also documents the changing styles in fashion from the eighteenth to the mid-twentieth century — from battle jackets to firemen’s coats, and from luxurious kimono embroidered with traditional patterns, to robes for the new “modern girl.” In addition to the fourteen spectacular examples illustrated in the exhibition catalogue, sixteen additional garments are included in the presentation at the MIA. Perhaps more than any other form of Japanese artistry, these robes reveal the culture’s genius for arresting design. A late eighteenth-century uchikake, an outer robe, bears a pattern of dyed and embroidered wisteria flowers against a ground of red silk. This robe is a rare example in which the brilliance of the red, a fragile color derived from safflower petals and extremely costly, has not faded. Another garment features an embroidered willow tree rising from the hem and branching out into trailing stems of multicolored leaves. Superimposed on this already gorgeous design are six embroidered Chinese characters from a ninth-century Japanese poem. A man’s robe in the exhibition features a giant spider, rendered in rice paste-resist, advancing towards a butterfly caught in its web. It’s likely that No and Kabuki plays about a spider-demon that attacks an ailing warrior at night was the inspiration for this unusual garment.