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Bridge of Dreams

The Mary Griggs Burke Collection of Japanese Art

The Metropolitan Museum of Art

March 28 to June 25, 2000

Miniature handscroll by Sakai Oho

Small detail of one of six miniature handscrolls, three-and-and-half inches high and 47 1/8 inches long, by Sakai Oho (1808-1841)

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 news.

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."

"Seated Fudo Myoo"

"Seated Fudo Myoo," circle of Kaikei, (flourished circa 1183-1223), 20 1/4 inches high, lacquered cypress

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).

"Cicada on a Grapevine"

Very large detail of "Cicada on a Grapevine," Bokurin Guan, flourished 15th Century, hanging scroll, 25 3/8 by 12 1/2 inches

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 noted.

"Willows and Bridge"

"Willows and Bridge," Monoyama Period (1573-1615), pair folding screens each one 5 feet 7 inches by 11 feet 4 inches

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 Tosa artist."

"Cranes"

One of pair of folding screens depicting cranes by Ishida Yutei (1721-1786)

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.

"Lions at the Stone Bridge at Tendaisan"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 work."

"Ibaraki"

"Ibaraki," left panel of a pair of folding screens by Shibata Zeshin (1807-1891), 66 3/8 by 65 3/8 inches

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.

"Women Contemplating Floating Fans"

"Women Contemplating Floating Fans," Edo period folding screen

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 century."

"Tagasode"

"Tagasode (Whose Sleeves?)," folding screen shown on the left

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 appreciation.

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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