Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
November 19, 2014
Stephen Little Chinese Paintings from Japanese Collections Exh. cat. Los Angeles and New York: Los Angeles County Museum of Art in association with Delmonico, 2014. 176 pp.; 118 color ills.; 7 b/w ills. $50.00 (9783791353531)
Exhibition schedule: Los Angeles County Museum of Art, May 11–June 1; June 7–July 6, 2014
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Chinese Paintings from Japanese Collections. Installation view. Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Photo © 2014 Museum Association/LACMA.

Visitors to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art who caught this exhibition with the unassuming title Chinese Paintings from Japanese Collections were treated to the rare opportunity of viewing some of Japan’s most treasured works of art. Thirty-five paintings in handscroll and hanging scroll formats, presented in two rotations, offered diverse examples of the major subjects of Chinese painting. Figures were especially well represented, including an emaciated Confucian scholar with papyrus-like skin preaching the subtleties of an ancient text, the savagely grinning idiot-savants Hanshan (Cold Mountain) and Shide of Zen Buddhist fame, and an oversized King of Hell, swarthy and opulently garbed, to list but a few. Landscapes were almost as wide-ranging, from the whisper-like solitude of a lake under a full autumn moon to the cacophonous encounter of grotesquely shaped mountains. Lovers of nature could enjoy the intimacy of two sparrows on a bare branch huddled in their feathers in early spring rain, or the monumentality of a dragon-like branch of full-flowering plum blossoms fronting a gigantic moon rising through evening mists. The exhibition, at a glance, was a smorgasbord, and those who came to it with nothing more than a healthy curiosity and visual appetite were rewarded with a wide range of images, techniques, and styles. The exhibition setting was darkly churchlike, which served to highlight the paintings. Gleaming like jewels in the generous space, they beckoned viewers to get close for the intimate viewing that is essential for the proper appreciation of Chinese painting.

For those who came with more, Chinese Paintings from Japanese Collections had much to offer. The exhibition included one designated National Treasure, Yintuoluo’s Hanshan and Shide (fourteenth century), and a number of Important Cultural Properties. Paintings such as Fu Sheng Transmitting the Classic attributed to Wang Wei (699–759), The Poet Li Bai Chanting a Poem on a Stroll by Liang Kai (early thirteenth century), Hanshan and Shide by Yan Hui (late thirteenth–early fourteenth century), and the anonymous but exquisite The Four Sleepers (before 1351) count among the most famous of extant Chinese paintings anywhere. Students and connoisseurs of Chinese painting were grateful for the opportunity to examine these paintings under such optimal conditions, especially in consideration of the difficulty in securing special loans from Japan. Equally fortunate were students and scholars of Chinese religion, as the exhibition was unusually rich with paintings of Chan (Zen) Buddhist and Daoist subjects of the thirteenth to fifteenth centuries. How was the enlightenment experience conveyed in pictures? A natural question to ponder when facing such diverse images as the ninth-century priest Dongshan Liangjie catching a glimpse of his reflection while crossing a stream (the moment of his awakening) in exquisite, literal detail by a professional court painter (probably Ma Yuan, act. ca. 1195–1225) and the engaging Four Sleepers—Hanshan, Shide, their mentor Fenggan, and the latter’s pet tiger, huddled together in comfortable slumber—rendered in the baimiao (plain-ink drawing) mode to such creative effect as to suggest an alternate reality embedded in abstracted forms and mesmerizing patterns.

I suspect that this is how most visitors engaged Chinese Paintings from Japanese Collections: as an opportunity to see superb and in some cases exceedingly rare Chinese paintings. However, this scenario skirts the unifying theme of the exhibition, which, to state the obvious, is Japan’s role as a collector of fine art from the Middle Kingdom. Somewhat obscured by the matter-of-factness of the exhibition’s title is the enormous complexity of Japan’s historical relationship with China and the deep ramifications this has for the image of both cultures. The relationship reached an early apex in the seventh and eighth centuries, tied in part to the importation of Buddhism; and though the strength of contact waned at times, it has remained a consistent factor in Japan’s long history. The most conspicuous display of Japan’s role as a conservator of Chinese culture occurs with the many paintings of religious subjects, especially Zen, in the exhibition. The curators chose wisely here, presenting select examples of the kinds of paintings that have largely been lost in China. The Southern Song monk-painter Muqi (act. thirteenth century), an artist almost completely elided from the Chinese historical record yet assiduously collected by Zen communities in Japan, is the prime example, represented by the aforementioned sparrows on a branch and Autumn Moon on Lake Dongting, one of a set of Eight Views of the Xiao and Xiang Rivers.

The interest of the exhibition, however, lay less with Japan’s preservation of valuable Chinese objects than with the narratives on intercultural exchange these objects present. There are many, beginning with the Muqi attributions. His popularity in Japan was partly attributable to his studies under the Chan master Wujun Shifan (1177–1249), who also mentored a number of prominent Japanese monks. But how precisely were Muqi’s paintings received in Japan? And how did the overseas interest in this Hangzhou-based monk-painter affect the market? Was there a proliferation of copies and fakes? It is noteworthy, in this regard, that although the two paintings in the exhibition are of high quality, neither is universally accepted as genuine. The more one probes individual pieces in the exhibition, the more one becomes aware of how each painting has an individual story to tell regarding the process by which it was sought, obtained, and in many ways transformed in the journey to becoming a Japanese possession.

Physical transformations are especially noticeable: Muqi’s Autumn Moon on Lake Dongting was removed from a handscroll format that included the other seven views of the Xiao and Xiang and remounted as a hanging scroll to suit Japanese viewing practices. The isolation of Chinese images is shown to even more radical effect with Xia Gui’s (act. thirteenth century) Misty Rivershore Landscape, an intimate sliver of a scene originally part of a (presumed) multi-leaved album reconfigured into a modest hanging scroll. Viewed as a detached object, Xia’s minimalist imagery magnifies and grows more impactful. Individual motifs, brushwork, and ink tonalities become more noticeable, contesting the atmospheric space of Xia Gui’s scene. Ancillary to the occasional change of format but equally noticeable—sometimes more so—are the surrounding silks and brocades used to frame the paintings in their mountings. Good Chinese mountings use monochromatic silks of muted tone that are quietly complementary to the image. Japanese mountings, in contrast, can be elaborate affairs, sometimes employing multiple brocades of two or more colors interwoven with glittering gold patterns. The results can be dazzlingly sumptuous but also distracting, and sometimes much worse.

Partly because of the generous spacing, partly because of the lighting, and in no small part due to the exhibition’s theme, I found myself engaged by the mountings of these paintings far more than usual. They struck me as the most visceral reflection of the complexity of the process by which objects move from one culture to another. It is one thing to acknowledge the reformatting of paintings like Muqi’s and Xia Gui’s landscapes into small hanging scrolls to suit the proportions of the tokonoma, or viewing alcove. This fits what is known of Japanese viewing practices and the desire to create concentrated aesthetic experiences, but these colorful mountings suggest a realm of appreciation that is more emotional than rational. Call it the alchemy of cultural assimilation: meaningful, yet beyond reason. (Unfortunately, the catalogue to the exhibition only includes one image with mounting, but it is a good one: Muqi’s Autumn Moon on Lake Donting).

Of course, there are numerous aspects of the process by which Chinese paintings moved to Japan, not to mention their impact on Japanese art. Historical moments and cultural trends (collecting and connoisseurship during the Muromachi, the gradual introduction of scholar-official painting during the Edo, the influence of the Ôbaku set of Zen Buddhism, the emergence of Nanga, or Japanese literati painting), and the activities of individual patrons, collectors, and artists, all make for a very dense but narratable story. Some of this was mentioned in text panels in the exhibition, but most was left out. Apparently this was a conscious decision on the part of curator Stephen Little and assistant curator Christina Yu Yu, since the exhibition’s catalogue dutifully sketches the larger picture and adds much pertinent detail. The catalogue, in fact, was an essential accompaniment to bring out the many layers of this complex show. Concisely and clearly written, and illustrated with a number of other famous pieces of Chinese art in Japanese collections, it stands alone as an excellent presentation of a difficult but fascinating subject as well as a masterful guide to the exhibition.

That brings up a final point. An exhibition that focuses on one culture’s assimilation of the art of another is a difficult order. To attempt this with two civilizations as profound, long lived, and different from what most people know is well beyond difficult. Chinese Paintings in Japanese Collections placed the objects first, enticing visitors to explore the paintings closely, personally, and largely unmediated. I found the reduction to essentials in this setup both appealing and appropriate. Viewers relive, albeit in their own individual and subjective ways, the experience of discovery and wonder underlying so many centuries of Japanese collecting.

Peter C. Sturman
Professor, Department of the History of Art and Architecture, University of California, Santa Barbara

Please send comments about this review to editor.caareviews@collegeart.org.