Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
April 30, 1999
Michael R. Cunningham Buddhist Treasures from Nara Exh. cat. Cleveland: Hudson Hills Press in association with The Cleveland Museum of Art, 1998. 286 pp.; 175 color ills.; 83 b/w ills. $50.00

The Cleveland Museum of Art held a monumental exhibition of Buddhist art from August 9 through September 27, 1998. Mimi Hall Yiengpruksawan writes in her catalogue essay that “the Cleveland Museum of Art, in bringing the art of the Nara National Museum before an American audience . . . in all their [its] richness and diversity, is in itself an act of lasting merit that helps to preserve one of the great traditions of Asian art” (p. 33). In effect, an exhibition catalogue is similar to a pilgrimage souvenir that one might obtain during a visit to a temple, serving as a remembrance or effigy of illustrious images and providing lingering benefits from the experience of viewing those forms. In some cases, pilgrimage souvenirs are passed on to those who are not able to make the journey themselves, serving as a substitute for the missed opportunity. Unfortunately, I find myself in this category, as I was not able to attend the exhibition, but I will comment on this remarkable event based on its catalogue.

In recent years the United States has been fortunate to receive some very interesting exhibitions of Japanese Buddhist art with such catalogues as Washizuka Hiromitsu, Enlightenment Embodied: The Art of the Japanese Buddhist Sculptor (New York: Japan Society Gallery, 1997) and Anne Nishimura Morse and Samuel Crowell Morse, Object as Insight: Japanese Buddhist Art and Ritual (Katonah, N.Y.: Katonah Museum of Art, 1995). Buddhist Treasures from Nara, however, was even grander in scale with an impressive number of objects representative of the great diversity in Japanese Buddhist art. The Cleveland Museum of Art has forged a relationship with the Nara National Museum over a long period of time and this exhibition is a culmination of the fruits of that liaison. There may be some confusion from the title over whether the theme of the exhibition addresses objects from the Nara period (710–794), or objects from the Nara area, but in this case “Nara” refers to the Nara National Museum, a place that has one of the finest collections of Japanese Buddhist art in the world.

Although space allows for mention of only a few, the exhibition includes many major monuments of Buddhist art. In sculpture, the Yoryu Kannon (Willow-branch Kannon) (Cat. No. 22) is a stunning example of finely executed craftsmanship in wood from the eighth century, while the Bato Kannon (Horse-headed Kannon) (Cat. No. 29) is a wonderfully well-preserved example that reveals the high level of refinement that was achieved in thirteenth-century sculpture. Many superb and unusual examples of Buddhist painting were included in the exhibition, such as the twelfth-century Daibutcho mandala (Cat. No. 43) and the thirteenth-century Sonsho mandala (Cat. No. 44). And, of course, some of the most well-known and most fascinating paintings in Japanese Buddhist art are the hell scenes (jigoku zozhi) (Cat. No. 38), horrible compositions that both repel and attract viewers at the same time.

The exhibition also included an ample assortment of objects representative of the honji-suijaku tradition. These forms demonstrate the fact that Buddhist deities and kami were more closely linked before the Meiji regime ordered a dissolution of the relationships between shrines and temples in 1868. Because of this type of inorganic separation, shrine mandalas, kakebotoke (hanging votive plaques), and syncretic images of Zao Gogen are the type of objects that would have been underrepresented or left out of exhibitions focusing on Buddhist art in the past. Consequently, it is a pleasure to see them incorporated into this exhibition.

The inclusion of Buddhist ritual objects is also an important step in understanding the context for Buddhist visual forms. Regrettably, the photograph of the bronze sutra container (Cat. No. 7) is unclear, so it is hard to follow the explanation of its incised line drawings of the deities from the Lotus Sutra. A recent catalogue from the Kyoto National Museum (Elegance, Virtue, and Ceremony: Buddhist Painting of the Heian and Kamakura Periods. Kyoto: Kyoto National Museum, 1998, Cat. No. 98, pp. 198, 343), provides two photographs of this object where the incised drawings are visible.

Also in the interest of clarity, in Cat. No. 84 a comparative reference is made to an early fourteenth-century altar (dan) at Muroji. The building that housed this altar is known as the Kanchodo, or the Hondo, not “Takuchodo” (p. 224). Although specialists may hope for more details and references, given the tight time constraints of putting together a catalogue and exhibition, Buddhist Treasures from Nara is an important contribution to the field of Japanese art history. Yiengpruksawan has written an excellent essay that provides a historical context for Nara as a place where Buddhist material culture was produced. Her essay is written from the standpoint of the viewers of the works. The imperial family, specifically Emperor Shomu, his consort Komyo, and Empress Koken, may have been in most privileged positions for viewing Buddhist objects. Yiengpruksawan also discusses how the production of these great monuments would have affected the lives and livelihoods of the common people in Nara. Furthermore, she begins to explore the role of the clergy in terms of iconography and vision. The question of how viewers of Buddhist forms dealt with the overwhelming array of manifestations in the Buddhist pantheon is a fascinating subject that is extremely important for the study of Buddhist art history. Although she does not mention it in the essay, this subject is further pursued in her article titled “Buddha’s Bodies and the Iconographical Turn,” in Buddhist Spirituality II: Later Chinese, Korean, Japanese and the Modern World, edited by Takeuchi Yoshinori, James W. Heisig, Joseph S. O’Leary, and Paul L. Swanson (New York: Crossroad, 1999).

At the end of the catalogue there is an intriguing essay by John Rosenfield titled “Japanese Buddhist Art: Alive in the Modern Age.” Rosenfield frames Buddhist material culture in the context of modernization and addresses how the government of the Meiji period (1868–1912) and the impact of the West propelled Buddhist icons and ritual paraphernalia into the realm of “art.” Rosenfield explains the phenomenon by considering how, after temples lost their former status and support, the government eventually chose to emphasize the merits of Buddhist material culture as magnificent cultural products. At the same time, many nineteenth-century industrialists began to collect and display these items as art treasures, thus redefining the intention of the original patrons. This essay along with such works such as Christine Guth’s Art, Tea, and, Industry: Matsuda Takashi and the Mitsui Circle (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993) are important contributions to the field in that they consider the way the relatively recent phenomenon of the art history of Buddhism came into being. Another section in Rosenfeld’s essay that is extremely beneficial to the exhibition is “Public Museums in Japan” (pp. 239–40), in which he explains the history of the Nara National Museum, further rounding out the context for the theme of this exhibition.

One function of a catalogue is that it is the part of an exhibition that lingers afterward as a memento of the dizzying experience of seeing the real works, but it also needs to offer accessible information to an uninitiated audience. Buddhist Treasures from Nara successfully accomplishes these tasks and is a valuable resource in the field of Buddhist art history. The author, contributors, and organizers should be commended for successfully bringing this monumental exhibition to the United States.

Sherry Fowler
Lewis & Clark College