By Carter B. Horsley
The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Japanese
galleries are among its most splendid and clearly future promised
gifts from the Mary Griggs Burke Collection of Japanese Art, the
subject of this exhibition, will only enhance them further.
The Burke Collection, part of which was shown
at the museum in a 1975 exhibition and some items of which have
long been on loan to the museum, is widely considered to be the
finest such private collection outside Japan.
In his column in the April 10, 2000 issue of
The New York Observer, Hilton Kramer wrote that "it
has been announced that Mrs. Burke...is leaving the bulk of the
collection to the Met as a permanent gift." That is fabulous
This is an eclectic collection that includes
many masterpieces, but the preponderance of it consists of paintings,
screens and scrolls rather than small objects such as netsuke
and sword hilts and porcelains. The exhibition does include some
small ceramics included a few that show the Japanese enchantment
with accidental mistakes.
The museum has been significantly expanding
its non-Western art collections over the past few decades, an
important and wonderful effort, albeit one not without some occasional
controversies (see The City Review articles
on controversial attributions of Chinese art at the museum).
The Burke Collection is a connoisseur’s
delight and shows the individuality of the Japanese artistic temperament
to great advantage. While many who are new to Asian art often
credit China for almost everything to the belittlement of Japanese
and Korean art and other cultures that have always felt its influence
over the millenia, many of the objects of art here evidence Japan’s
strong aesthetic heritage and brilliance. In the post-World War
II era, it has been obvious that Japan has been the world’s
exquisite epicenter of great design, especially in architecture,
but it did not blossom overnight as the Burke Collection, which
stops short of contemporary Japanese art, well documents.
"The exhibition of the collection at the
Tokyo National Museum in 1985 and the subsequent award to Mrs.
Burke of the honorary medal of the Order of the Sacred Treasures,
Gold and Silver Star, by the Japanese Government in 1987 are signal
marks of the high esteem in which Mrs. Burke is held by the Japanese
nation for her activities in support not only of Japanese art
but of all facets of Japanese culture," remarked Philippe
de Montebello, the museum’s director, in his foreword to
the exhibition’s lavish catalogue ($50, paperback).
The catalogue was written by Miyeko Murase,
Takeo and Itsuko Atsumi Professor Emeritus at Columbia University
and research Curator of Japanese Art at the museum who has collaborated
with the Burke Collection for the past 35 years.
Mrs. Burke’s maternal grandfather, Crawford
Livingston, was a descendant of Robert Livingston, a Scotsman
who came to the United States in the early 17th Century with a
large land grant and the title Lord of the Manor from the British
crown. Four generations later, his family would serve in the Revolution
and help draft and sign the Declaration of Independence.
Crawford Livingston moved to St. Paul, Minnesota,
in 1870, 14 years after her paternal grandfather Colonel Chauncy
Griggs, had moved there from Connecticut, and both men, according
to Mrs. Burke’s delightful reminiscences in an catalogue
essay, "established themselves in a variety of successful
ventures, including lumber, railroading, and public utilities."
Grandfather Livingston eventually returned to New York to help
his only surviving son form a banking firm, while Grandfather
Griggs pressed on to the west coast to extend his lumbering interests
in Tacoma, Washington," she wrote.
"Grandfather Grigg’s wife - an active,
cultured person and a good amateur painter - was a woman of independent
mind….She was about to board ship when her houseman rushed
onto the dock with the news that the house was on fire. Calmly,
she told him to return to the site and put out the fire; she meantime
continued on her journey to Japan, with the single-mindedness
worthy of a Zen priest," she continued, adding that the event
was "possibly apocryphal but evidently typical story concerning
one of her departures from Tacoma."
Her mother, Mary Livingston Griggs, also traveled
to Japan and built a rock garden at her summer house. "This
minature garden, inspired by Japan, along with Wisconsin’s
tall green pines and sparkling lakes, instilled in me a deep love
of nature. The belief in the sanctity of nature in turn led me
in my collecting to Zen Buddhist landscapes of the Muromachi period,
so expressive of the essence of natural things and of man’s
harmony within the natural world," she continued.
Her mother gave her a painting by Georgia O’Keefe
that "more than any other single work of art, influenced
the formation" of her own taste, she wrote, adding that "another
painter who also had a profound influence on my growing aesthetic
appreciation was Bradley Walker Tomlin, with whom I studied at
Sarah Lawrence College….He introduced me to the calligraphic
line of the American Action Painters, whose brushstrokes resemble
Chinese and Japanese calligraphy. Eventually, I acquired works
by such artists as Maurice Utrillo and Aristide Maillol…,"
Mrs. Burke wrote.
When she finally went to Japan in 1954 at the
suggestion of Walter Gropius, the architect, to gain insights
from Japanese gardens to help him and Ben Thompson, the TAC architect,
working on the design of a contemporary house for her, "create
a perfect environment," Mrs. Burke was impressed by the use
of line in Japanese painting: "In ukiyo-e prints and
paintings line serves as a border for areas of color, while in
ink painting line is a kind of shorthand, a sensitive and suggestive
way of presenting both form and content."
"In 1955, the countryside of Japan was
still strikingly beautiful. Patterned rice paddies and neat tea
plantations surrounded the villages on the plains, covered the
low hills, and reached up to the craggy mountains. The old, dark,
beautifully shaped farmhouses appeared to grow from the green
fields, and the people who worked the fields in their dark blue
clothes and broad straw hats evoked a sense of belonging and harmony.
Art played a large part in the daily lives of the people. The
distinction between craft and high art was not so sharply drawn
as in the West. Art was a comprehensive whole that included lacquer,
ceramics, paintings, textiles, and much more. The esthetic sensitivity
of the Japanese people showed not only in their architecture and
masterpieces of sculpture and painting, but in what they wore,
in the utensils they use for eating, even in the arrangement of
food on a plate," Mrs. Burke wrote. Her husband, Jackson
Burke, who died in 1975, was a printer and designer of books and
director of typographic development for the Mergenthaler Linotype
Company in Brooklyn.
The collection includes some impressive, large
earthenware from the Jomon period (circa 10,500 B.C., to circa
300 B.C.), a striking Haniwa (burial mound figure) and a spectacularly
abstract vessel from the Kofun period (circa 3rd Century A.D.
to 538), some large wood sculptures from the Late Heian period
(circa. 900 - 1185) and two hiten, bodhisattvas who fly
on clouds around the Buddha, from the same period.
The hiten, were made of lacquered and
gilden Japanese cypress and have been mounted on disks. The catalogue
notes that the disks and "the rather fussy ribbons that create
the suggestion of movement are later additions," adding that
"both figures have sustained noticeable damage on the torsos.
The Burke hiten were acquired separately and the catalogue
notes that, "it is possible, dated on stylistic grounds to
the same period," that they originated with the sculptural
group of the Amida Buddha and mandorla with apsaras in
Joruriji, Kyoto, circa 1107.
From the Kamakura period (1185-1333) comes
a 20 1/8-inch-high, lacquered cypress statue of a standing Jizo
Bosatsu carrying a staff topped with metal rings that "give
him the appearance of a monk rather than a bodhisattva, and like
a monk he wears three robes," the catalogue notes. "Nevertheless,
his exalted status in the Buddhist pantheon is clearly indicated
by the urna on his forehead and by his long earlobes. The
statue, it continued, "must originally have held a wish-granted
jewel" in the left hand and may have worn a necklace. "Like
many Buddhist deities, Jizo was originally a Hindu god, incorporated
into the Buddhist pantheon in India. While he never gained a large
following there, his popularity grew in China, especially after
three important sutras on Jizo worship were translated into Chinese
during the Tang dynasty (618-907)….Japanese interest in Jizo
dates at least to the mid-eighth century….The Burke Jizo
is carved from several blocks of Japanese cypress…joined
in the yosegi zukuri (multiple block) technique. The figure
is hollow, and the crystal eyes were inlaid from the inside of
the head. During a recent restoration, several inscriptions were
discovered on the interior, including the names Shinkai, En Amida
Butsu and Ryo Amida Butsu. In middle of the se names are the characters
for…the name used by the sculptor Kaikei (flourished circa
1183-1223)….Kaikei was one of the two leading sculptures
of the early Kamakura period. The other was Unkei (1151-1223),
with whom Kaiki collaborated on sculptural projects commissioned
for the monumental reconstruction in Nara of Todaiji and Kofukuji.
Kaikei, who is thought to have been a pupil of Kokei, Unkei’s
father, and to have been slightly older than Unkei, was atypical
in that, unlike most Japanese sculptors of the premodern era,
he signed many of his works. Of the forty or so that survive,
at least twenty-three Are signed….That Kaikei inscribed his
name on many works, a practice unprecedented in the history of
Japanese sculpture, reflects the general awareness of the worth
of the individual that was characteristic of the Kamakura period….The
Burke Jizo, which can be dated to about 1202, exhibits the vigorous,
youthful appearance of Kaikei’s early works."
Another work attributed to the "circle"
of the same artist is "Seated Fudo Myoo," a 20 ¼-inch
high sculpture, shown above, of the ferocious-looking deity who
was known in India as Achala or Achalanatha, one of the many manifestations
of Shiva, the Hindu god of destruction and reincarnation.
The catalogue provides the following description
of this superb work:
"In his left hand, he holds a lasso for
pulling reluctant beings toward the path of salvation, and in
his right is a sword for demolishing evil forces. His long hair
is gathered at the left side of his face in several knots - as
many knots as there are incarnations through which he will serve
as the faithful servant of his master. On his head he often bears
a small, six-petaled flower or a lotus blossom, signifying his
determination to uphold Buddha’s Law. Terrible gods are often
depicted in violent movement, but Fudo is usually motionless,
in keeping with the belief that the mightiest power is best expressed
in such a state."
The statue is "nearly identical to a statue
signed by Kaikei and dated 1203" in Sanboin, a subtemple
of Daigoji, Kyoto, but this one has "a stronger sense of
three-dimensionality, with a more exaggerated modeling of the
fleshy fact, a more forward thrust of the arms, and greater complexity
in the deeply cut drapery folds. Above all, while the Sanboin
version appears soft and supple, the Burke version is noticeably
harder in its modeling…Although unconfirmed, the Burke Fudo
is thought to have been in the collection of Shoren’in, Kyoto.
Kaikei had close ties with this temple and with its aristocratic
abbot, Shinsho, through whose efforts he obtained commissions
at other temples."
One of the most spectacular and complex works
in the exhibition is a large hanging scroll of the Mandala of
Han’nya Bosatsu from the Muromachi period (1392-1573).
One of the most beautiful hanging scrolls in
the collection from the same period is "Cicada on a Grapevine,"
by Bokurin Guan (flourished 15th Century). "Guan’s vertical
compositions, with their more naturalistic details, may indicate
a familiarity with either Korean or Chinese grape paintings, perhaps
those associated with the Yuan master Ren Renfa (1255-1328) and
those of the Ming Dynasty painter Wang Liangzhen (flourished 15th
Century), who is today known only through one composition now
in the Freer Gallery of Art, Washington, DC.," the catalogue
Large screens are the highlight of the Burke
Collection and it is hard to imagine one more beautiful that "Willows
and Bridge" from the Monoyama period (1573-1615), which consists
of a pair of six-panel folding screens painted in ink, color,
gold and copper on gilded paper, each one five feet seven inches
high by 11 feet four inches long. "Under a moonlit sky, a
golden bridge sweeps upward in a strong diagonal from the right
screen to the left, spanning a view of water, rocks and trees.
Three willows at the right, middle and left hint at the changing
seasons; the small, delicate leaves on the trees at the right
and center are signs of spring, while the fuller, longer leaves
at the left suggest summer. Beyond the bridge, the glowing moon
- made of copper and attached to the screen by small pegs - evokes
the clear skies of autumn. A large waterwheel turns in the stream,
and four stone-filled baskets…protect the embankments. With
their contrasts of large dramatic forms and brilliant metallic
shimmer, the Burke screens represent the zenith of the Monoyama
decorative style. The paintings immediately evoke the image of
the bridge over the Uji River in southeast Kyoto, a scenic view
that has ben immortalized over the centuries by many Japanese
artists and poets….A broad bridge…is believed to have
been constructed at Uji in 646; the several battles that were
later fought in the area enriched its historical associations.
Beginning in the eleventh century, waterwheels for irrigration
are frquently mentioned, as are baskets filld with stones for
water control and for the protection of the riverbanks. About
the year 1010, Lady Murasaki chose Uji as the setting for the
last ten chapters of Genji monogatari (The Tale of Genji) , and
a new element derived from that text - boats carrying brushwood
- mades its appearance in the iconograpny….Although the present
pair of screens bear neither seal nor signature, it is possible
that they were painted by a member of the Hasegawa school."
While the Uji screens have no figures, another
screen from the same period overflows with remarkably costumed
figures in a "golden mist" taken from an episode from
"Butterflies," the 24th chapter of the Tale of Genji.
The screen "conflates" the events of two days into one
scene: dragon and phoenix boats bearing ladies dressed in their
most elegant clothes are launched on the lake and another boat
carries male musicians. Murasaki, Genji’s favorite consort,
dresses several of her prettiest young attendants as birds and
butterflies and sends them to dance in front of Akikonomu’s
quarters. "The screen is generally accepted as the work of
Tosa Mitsuyoshi (1539-1613), a hitherto neglected artist of the
Tosa school," the catalogue noted.
Another screen based on "The Tale of Genji"
is attributed to the studio of Tawaraya Sotatsu from the Edo period
(1615-1868), and it uses "fingerlike cloud patterns in gold,
a common device,…to divide the remaining picture surface
into a series of compartments," the catalogue maintained,
adding that "To afford a direct view of building interiors,
roofs are eliminated in a yamato-e convention known as
fukinuki yatai." The screen illustrates nine episodes
from seven chapters and they are shown consecutively, "suggesting
that many additional screens accompanied this one, probably illustrating
the other forty-seven chapters," the catalogue entry said,
adding although the screen has a signature that "as the figures
are more delicate than those found in other paintings generally
accepted as by Sotatsu, the screen is perhaps more correctly attributed
to the Sotatsu studio."
Another magnificent screen from the same period
illustrates "The Tale of the Heike" and is one of only
two known examples that combine the Ohara and Kogo episodes on
the same pair of screens. The other example, the catalogue stated,
has been "tentatively identified as the work of Hasegawa
Kyuzo (1568—1503),…The arrangement of pictorial elements
in the Burke Kogo screen closely resembles the image painted by
Kyuzo. Stylistically, however, the work can be attributed to a
Cranes have long been considered noble and
elegant and symbols of longevity. One Edo screen shows 36 of them
painted by Ishida Yutei (1721-1786), who painted another pair
of screens with even more cranes in the collection of the Shizuoka
Prefectural Museum of Art.
In sharp contrast to the bold colors of the
earlier screens, Maruyama Okyo (1733-1795) employs a much softer
palette in his poetic screen compositions, finely shown in "Sweetfish
in Summer and Autumn." He was said to have taught almost
a thousand pupils and combined "a virtuoso technique in the
depiction of the natural world with a sensitive apprehension of
the decorative, making his art easy to grasp and appreciate and
laying the foundation of his own Maruyama school and the Shijo
school, founded by one of his students, Matsumarua Goshun.
One of the most striking hanging scrolls from
the Edo period in the Burke Collection is "White Plum Blossoms
and Moon," by Ito Jakuchu (1716-1800). This large work is
unusual for its extremely busy composition in which the extremely
white blossoms dot most of the surface with their branches faintly
perceptible in the background as is a huge full moon. The catalogue
describes the work as an "extraordinary, dreamlike scroll,
adding that the artist was "the eldest of the Three Eccentrics
of the Edo period, the others being Rosetsu and Shohaku….Jakuchu
was less outrageous in his behavior and the expression of his
talent than the other two artists, and his reputation as an eccentric
seems to have been gased on his tendency to combine incompatible
element in his paintings - realism, for example, with brilliant
color and decorative abstraction." The lyrical work almost
conjures Jackson Pollock in its obfuscation.
The Burke collection has a marvelous example of Shohaku’s
work, "Lions at the Stone Bridge of Tendaisan," a hanging
scroll, shown at the left. Tendaisan is the holy mountain of the
Tientai sect of Buddhism in the Zheijang Province in Southeast
China and, the catalogue explains, "was the legendary abode
of three famous Chan eccentrics, Fengkan, Hanshan, and Shide…The
mountain was a favorite pilgrimage site for generations of Chinese
and Japanese monks and literary men, who extolled its beauty in
a number of memorable accounts. One of the most impressive sights
on the mountain was an extraordinary natural stone bridge, which
is described in Chinese literature as rising to a height of eighteen
thousand feet, its curve likened to the arc of a rainbow or the
back of a giant turtle. Watered by the mist rising from nearby
falls, its stone surface was covered with a slippery layer of
ancient moss. The fame of the bridge spread beyond China, and
became the subject of legend. Perhaps the best known in Japan
is the No play, Shakkyo (The Stone Bridge), by Kanze Motokiyo
(1343-1443). A second popular legend, of uncertain origin, is
illustrated here. To test the endurance of her newborn cubs, a
lioness pushes them off a promontory near the stone bridge. She
will care only for those that manage to climb back to her by scaling
the steep cliffs. The subject is rare in the Chinese and Japanese
repertory, and its depiction in this panting is even more bizarre
than the store. Hundreds of lion cubs leap from rock to rock,
trying to claw their way to the cop of the cliff….By the
twentieth century, Shohaku was virtually unknown in Japan. His
reputation has recently revived, however, thanks in large measure
to American scholars’ and collectors’ appreciation of
his indivduality and modernity. Many of his paintings are in American
collections, and through the efforts in the 1880s of Ernest F.
Fenollosa…and William S. Bigelow…of the Museum of Fine
Arts, Boston, today houses the largest collection of Shohaku’s
One of the most dashing and amusing works in
the exhibition is "Ibaraki," a pair of folding screens
by Shibata Zeshin (1807-1891) from the Meiji period (1868-1912).
Zeshin, the catalogue observed, "is one of the few artists
of pre-twentieth-century Japan to become known in the West during
his lifetime," adding that "His lacquer pieces were
included in the Vienna World’s Fair of 1873, and his work
today, particularly his lacquerware…and urushi-e (lacquer
painting), is much admired."
"Already successful in his teens, Zeshin
was catapulted to fame in 1840, when he was commissioned by an
association of sugar wholesalers to painter an ema, or
votive tablet, to be dedicated to Oji Inari, a Shinto shrine in
Edo. Perhaps at the suggestion of his sponsors, he painted a startling
image of the ghostly demon Ibaraki, which is nearly identical
to the figure depicted on the Burke screen. The subect is drawn
from the legendary exploits of the warrior Wantanabe Tsuna (963-1024).
The Rashomon Gate, which once marked the southern entrance to
the old capital of Kyoto, was said to be inhabited by a demon
who assaulted innocent passerbys and hapless domestic animals.
Tsuna, charged by his master, Minamoto Raiko, with the task of
slaying the evil creature, was able only to cut off its hairy,
claw-handed arm. Vowing that he would return to claim the severed
limb, the demon escaped. Tsuna presented Ibaraki’s arm to
his master, who locked it in a casket and recited Buddhust sutras
for seven days. On the sixth day, Raiko’s aunt came to visit
and begged to see the arm. Against his better judgment, Raiko
consented. The aunt, who was actually the demon in disguise, seized
the arm and departed. The story of Ibaraki was widely popularized
in the No play, Rashomon, which was based on the Taiheiki,
a classic of the fourteenth century. More than thirty ayears after
Zeshin made the ema, Kikugoro, a leading Kabuki actor,
saw the image and commissioned the dramatist Mokuyami (1816-1893)
to write a play based on the theme for the Kabuki stage. The play,
also titled Ibaraki, was first performed in May 1883. Zeshin himself
painted the billboard depicting the hideous demon. When the play
closed, the billboard was donated to Sensoji , a temple not far
from the theater, where it remains to this day. Zeshin returned
to the subject more than once, painting the demon on hanging scrools
and tsuitate (small freestanding screens)…..The Burke
Ibaraki is the only known example to have been exected in the
folding-screen format. The work is also unique in that it depicts
the setting of the narrative - the casket encircled by purifying
ropes, as well as the oil lamp, whose flickering flame enhances
the eerie atmosphere. Zeshin’s use of the tarashikomi
(poured-in colors) technique further distinguishes this version
from the others."
Six miniature handscrolls, only three-and-and-half
inches high and 47 1/8 inches long, by Sakai Oho (1808-1841) are
extraordinarily fresh and vibrant. Each contains a panoramic river
scene. "Hills and shorelines are here rendered in soft gray
ink, a light shade of robin’s-egg blue leads the eye to the
middle section of each school, where breathtaking views of the
river in midcurrent unfold in vivid hues of aquamarine,"
the catalogue noted.
For those accustomed to viewing early Chinese
handscrolls, these miniature scrolls at first seem almost garish
so strong and fresh are the colors. Furthermore, the precision
of the drawing is almost too good as if it were a print, especially
in the treatment of the rivers’ waters, which are stylized
but all different. What truly makes them awesome, however, is
the delicacy of coloring as they fade away from the central sections.
They are comparable in their own fashion with Gothic "illuminations"
and great watercolors from India.
On a far larger scale is a Edo Period folding
screen of "Women Contemplating Floating Fans," a stunning
work, shown above, that the catalogue says "may be attributed
to an anonymous Kano artist active at the beginning of the seventeenth
Even more memorable is "Tagasode (Whose
Sleeves?)," a folding screen of fabulous abstraction. "Two
lacquered clothing racks draped with kimonos are shown on this
six-fold screen. One rack appears in full view, while the other
is only partially seen….This screen originally formed the
right half of a pair; the whereabouts of the companion screen
is unknown. As on other similar screens, the left screen probably
depicted additional items of clothing, perhaps including men’s
garments, with some hanging on racks and others folded on the
floor. Many screens of this type are extant…tagasode refers
to a beautiful woman, now absent, whose elegant kimono sleeves
and the fragrance arising from them evoke the image of their owner.
As a literary device in poetry, a kimono was interchangeable with
its wearer; by the same token, perfume bags, amulets, musical
instruments, and letter boxes would have been understood as references
to a beautiful woman," the catalogue explained.
The exhibition also includes several beautiful
paintings of courtesans by such artists as Kaigetsudo Ando (flourished
late 17th to early 18th century), but unfortunately the catalogue
does not reproduce the very fine and interestingly patterned silks
on which the scrolls are hung and which add considerably to their
Utagawa Hiroshige (1797-1858), perhaps Japan’s
most famous artist, is also represented in the exhibition.
The exhibition should be viewed several times.
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