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CMA Thinker

New on View: Modern Japan

By Sinéad Vilbar, Curator of Japanese Art

Our staff completed installation of the latest iteration of the Kelvin and Eleanor Smith Foundation Japanese Art Galleries (235A–B) on October 14. While we say so long for now to the standouts from the holdings of ukiyo-e paintings and prints that showed us an idealized view of Japan’s floating world, the key archaeological works, religious statuary, and ceramics that underpin the galleries’ ongoing objective to introduce some of the fundamentals of the visual culture of Japan over the course of its history will remain, this time in dialogue with thematic selections from the world of modern art. In fact, the installation addresses how the museum has been adding to its holdings of modern Japanese art in recent years in ways that benefit the longer cultural narrative of Japan across the ages.

The hybrid nature of the galleries’ installations presents both challenges and creative opportunities for curators and the teams within which they pursue their goals. That is to say, the twice-yearly reinstallations of the galleries, necessitated by the fragility of a high proportion of the artworks in the permanent collection, require a constant balance between presenting an overview or survey of Japanese art and making the most of an opportunity to simultaneously introduce specific aspects of art history within the same physical space. For example, the textbook example of the heights of Japanese portrait sculpture that is Hottō Kokushi, a work of the 13th century, is in this installation seen next to a painting by Suzuki Shōnen that manages to reveal something of the modern psyche in its unidealized presentation of a monk-demon familiar to his audience from folk paintings from the town of Ōtsu.

(法燈円明国師像), c. 1295–1315, Kamakura period (1185–1333) Hinoki cypress wood with lacquer, metal staples and fittings; h. 91.4 cm. The Cleveland Museum of Art, Leonard C. Hanna Jr. Fund, 1970.67
(鬼の念仏), late 1800s–early 1900s. Suzuki Shōnen (鈴木 松年) (Japanese, 1849–1918). Hanging scroll; ink and color on silk; 106 x 42 cm. The Cleveland Museum of Art, Kelvin Smith Fund, 1991.77

The galleries have one brand new and several relative newcomers to the collection on view. Comprising both gifts and acquisitions, these recent arrivals are on view for the first time, with the exception of one lacquer box that gets a pandemic “redo” since it sat in darkness for a time. The painting White Sake, acquired in March 2022 and on view in the first case of the rotation next to the introductory text, is the only Japanese painting in the collection dating to its decade, the 1930s, and aside from Fujii Setsuden’s White Herons in Rain, also on view in a nearby case, one of the only paintings in the museum to represent Nihonga, a painting movement formed, in the most general sense, in response to the introduction of oil painting from Europe. Both works incorporate elements of oil painting compositions but do so with ink and mineral pigments in culturally specific incarnations of the hanging scroll and screen formats.

(白酒図), c. 1934. Tateishi Harumi (立石春美) (Japanese, 1908–1994). Hanging scroll; ink, color, and gold on paper; 174.9 x 101.6 cm. The Cleveland Museum of Art, John L. Severance Fund, 2022.44
(雨に白鷺図屏風), 1910s. Fujii Setsuden (藤井雪田) (Japanese). Pair of six-panel folding screens, ink and color on silk; each: 169 x 372 cm. The Cleveland Museum of Art, John L. Severance Fund, 2015.64

The case between White Sake and White Herons in Rain displays one of the longtime highlights of the museum’s Japanese art collection between two modern kimono gifted to the museum in 2020. Design genius Shibata Zeshin (1807–1891) sketched Ibaraki-dōji around 1840 in preparation for a work commissioned by disgruntled union members. It made his career. While it may initially seem too early to be seen alongside the other works on view, it tells a part of their backstory with great drama. It is a coded prayer to the kami, or deity, of a shrine, offered in the hopes that the union would be delivered from the tortuous economic policies of their government so they could get the foods people desired back on the move. Zeshin lived to witness the demise of that government, the Tokugawa shogunate, and saw the name of his city change from Edo to Tokyo. One of the kimono that flanks his ink sketch of a demon in disguise transforming back into its original body is in leno weave, a technique first imported to Japan from China in the eighth century, while the other was made using then cutting-edge 20th-century technologies. Both Zeshin and the kimono survived and thrived in a new era, consciously blending old and new. His technical and design feats in lacquer inspired new generations to create works like Writing Box (Suzuribako) with Hydrangea at Night, a 1930s writing box on view across from White Sake that preserves the classical tools of a person who communicates in freshly ground ink with a carefully loaded brush, while exploring design permutations that engage with international movements in the decorative arts.

(梅桜文様単衣), 1926–59? Japan, Shōwa period (1926–89) Silk; leno weave with tie-dye. The Cleveland Museum of Art, Gift of John C. Weber, 2020.429
(多色格子模様着物), 1930s–50s. Japan, Shōwa period (1926–89) Machine-spun pongee plain weave silk (meisen) with resist-dyed threads; 162.9 x 130.5 cm. The Cleveland Museum of Art, Gift of Julia Meech, 2020.83
(茨木童子粉本), c. 1840. Shibata Zeshin (柴田 是真) (Japanese, 1807–1891). Hanging scroll, ink on paper; 161 x 172.2 cm. The Cleveland Museum of Art, Mr. and Mrs. William H. Marlatt Fund, 1990.6
(夜紫陽花文硯箱), 1930s. Japan, Shōwa period (1926–89). Lacquered wood and silver with gold, silver, and color sprinkled powder (); 5.4 x 23.1 x 25.3 cm. The Cleveland Museum of Art, Lillian M. Kern Memorial Fund, 2020.67

At the center of gallery 235A, and in a case in 235B, there is a selection of prints that explores with broad strokes the New Prints (Shinhanga) and Creative Prints (Sōsaku hanga) movements, in which Japanese print artists took divergent approaches to print making in response to encountering European thought that placed the individual artist at the center of creative expression. Among them is Rain in May, a “new print” by Itō Shinsui, who was the teacher of White Sake’s creator, Tateishi Harumi. Having traveled from Kyushu to Tokyo to study oil painting, he fell under the spell of Shinsui, who set him on his path as a Nihonga artist. Also out for the first time are two frontispiece prints, or kuchi-e, by Kaburaki Kiyokata (1878–1972), one still in the novel in which it was published, the first volume of Uzumaki (Whirlpool) by Watanabe Katei (1864–1926). The prints on view in gallery 235A will rotate out toward the end of February, when they will be replaced by a group of prints by Yoshida Hiroshi, who gave the museum one of his paintings on his way through Cleveland in 1924 on a “recovery tour” after the Great Kantō Earthquake of 1923. The work remains in its unmounted state, ripe for inclusion in a future exhibition.

(5月に雨), 1931. Itō Shinsui (伊東 深水) (Japanese, 1898–1972). Woodblock print, ink and color on paper; 43.4 x 28 cm. The Cleveland Museum of Art, Mr. and Mrs. William E. Ward Collection Fund, 2001.57
(『渦巻』第1巻 ) (detail), 1913. Kaburaki Kiyokata (鏑木 清方) (Japanese, 1878–1972). Frontispiece (): woodblock print; ink and color on paper; 33.3 x 21.8 cm. The Cleveland Museum of Art, Gift of Frederick and Tina Zwegat, 2020.82



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