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Art: Ambassadors of Good Will

4 minute read

Not so long ago, Japan dreamed of sending war lords to govern the U.S. from Washington. This year, with old enmities fading fast, Japan’s postwar rulers dispatched a different set of emissaries across the Pacific: 91 examples of her finest painting and sculpture, carefully packaged for a nationwide good-will tour of the U.S. In the past five months the show has drawn fascinated crowds in Washington and Manhattan; last fortnight, before doubling back to Chicago and Boston, the exhibition arrived aboard a specially refrigerated freight car for a four-week stay at the Seattle Art Museum.

Seattle had been well primed for this week’s opening, with 22 billboards, 500 posters in store windows, and 6,000 letters for schoolchildren to take home to their parents. Ten galleries of the museum’s 13 were emptied and redecorated to contain the exhibition. Staff members erected a facsimile of a Japanese shrine on the lawn out front, found a Japanese orchestra to play on the night of the opening. Expecting the biggest crowds since the museum’s opening 20 years ago, Director Richard Fuller explained: “We have had to go whole hog, but having the show is a great privilege.”

Priests & Guardian Gods. Scholars recognize seven major periods in Japanese art, dating back to the 6th century. Occidental showgoers could hardly be expected to keep them all straight, settled for two main impressions: 1) on the whole, Japanese art inclines toward the decorative, though Japan’s artists have turned their hands to many things besides kimonos, curved swords and block prints of Fujiyama; 2) Japanese art derives very largely from the Chinese (which had a 2,500-year head start), and in Japanese adaptations, the fire and depth of the greatest Chinese art often becomes mere chic.

But the show includes some masterpieces which outsoar all such generalizations. Many of the best are religious in feeling and intention. Like the Christian monks of medieval Europe, Japan’s Buddhist monks were often skilled artists. They kept the nation’s art alive and growing in its early stages, with work that was devotional rather than self-expressive. Ascetic in the extreme, it set a tradition of simplicity which was to shape Japanese art right along. With increasing prosperity, the priests got professional artists to fill their temples with images of Buddha, his attendant deities and fierce guardian gods. Such masterpieces of sacred sculpture as the Kannon (opposite) translated the liquid flow of brush-drawing into bronze.

Mystics & Samurais. By the end of the 14th century Japanese sculpture had declined, while drawing rose to new heights under the inspiration of the Zen Buddhist sect. Zen Buddhists stressed solitary contemplation as the loftiest activity, and Zen artists tried to put the fruit of such contemplation—the feeling that God exists, veiled, throughout nature—on to paper. Confining themselves chiefly to ink and water, they drew flowers, priests, birds, and deep, misty landscapes, with only a few strokes of the brush.

The 17th century Shrike (left) is a much later, secular offshoot of Zen drawing. With the swift and eager precision of a swordsman, the artist evoked all autumn in a fierce little bird perched atop a dead branch. Looking into their catalogues, gallerygoers noted without great surprise that Miyamoto Niten was in fact a samurai as famed for his swordsmanship as for his brushwork.

As it grew away from religion, Japan’s art increasingly celebrated everyday, human doings. The men who painted the actors, musicians, girls and horses on the following pages were down-to-earth and delicate at the same time. Their lighthearted pictures may rest below the loftiest peaks of Japanese art, but they have a delightful freshness and vigor all their own.

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