Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
September 5, 2003
Nicole Coolidge Rousmaniere, ed. Kazari: Decoration and Display in Japan, 15th–19th Centuries Exh. cat. New York and London: Japan Society and British Museum Press, 2001. 304 pp.; 230 color ills.; 60 b/w ills. Cloth $45.00 (0810967480)
Japan Society, New York, October 17–December 31, 2002; British Museum, London, February 5–April 13, 2003

In Japan, little formal distinction existed between the fine and decorative arts until about a century ago, when the Japanese began to adopt Western art-historical language and structures. Before then, all works of art—painting, ceramics, sculpture, and textiles—were seen as playing an equally vital role in the embellishment of interior and exterior spaces and as setting the aesthetic tone of a specific locale. The careful choice of the painting to be displayed in the tokonoma, the floral arrangement in a particular vase, or the design on a kimono could work together to create a mood of austerity or luxury, light-heartedness or sobriety, celebration or mourning. This interplay of a specific art object with its spatial and temporal context, along with the conscious participation of the viewer, is what is signified by the term kazari, a word that means more than simply “decoration.” Kazari is the foundation of Japanese aesthetic sensibilities, since it is the force that transforms a space from ordinary to extraordinary.

Kazari: Decoration and Display in Japan, 15th–19th Centuries, the catalogue published to accompany an exhibition of the same name, is the first extensive English-language study of the concept of kazari. Ably edited by Nicole Coolidge Rousmaniere, director of the Sainsbury Institute for the Study of Japanese Arts and Cultures, this volume foregoes the traditional approaches of presenting Japan’s artistic heritage chronologically or by material or artist. It breaks new ground by introducing Japanese screens, hanging scrolls, kimonos, ceramics bowls, and other art forms as not merely individual works of art, but as a medley of manifestations of the vibrant employment of ornament inherent in Japanese aesthetics, a dynamism that stimulates the senses and the intellect of the viewer. The curators of this exhibition and the designers of the catalogue share with the doboshu (art connoisseurs) of fifteenth-century Japan an awareness of the importance of carefully juxtaposing works of art for maximum impact. Taking their cue from the concept of kazari itself, the authors have arranged the artworks in this volume thoughtfully so as to kindle the reader’s imagination.

The emphasis in this volume is on the social settings of the artworks and on the interplay between the objects, their setting, and their viewers. Traditionally, works were carefully selected and displayed in a public or private space in a way that fed visual cues to the viewer about the intended nature and mood of that space. Specific flowers and colors set a seasonal tone, while the employment of foreign objects and materials suggested cultural sophistication. Fine Chinese ink paintings and celadon-glazed vases, for instance, arranged strategically in a military leader’s reception room, visually connected the warrior to the perceived advanced culture of China. Similarly, objects laden with literary or historical references aroused the mind and emotions of the erudite viewer, adding layers of meaning to that person’s experience of a particular space.

Such ideas are explored in essays by eight eminent Japanese art historians from Japan, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Each author examines the concept of kazari from different social, historical, and aesthetic angles. Of particular note are the essays by Rousmaniere, Tsuji Nobuo, and Kawai Masatomo, all of whom demonstrate the importance of the concept of kazari in the discussion of Japanese art and aesthetics. Tsuji, professor emeritus of Tokyo University and currently president of Tama Art University, is the principal proponent of the concept of kazari as “more a characterisation of Japanese traditional aesthetics than an abstract art historical term” (14). In his informative foreword, he provides a brief chronological survey of Japanese aesthetics from the Jomon period through the modern era, arguing for the ongoing need of the Japanese for kazari to transform ordinary locations and objects into extraordinary ones, in both religious and secular contexts. Kazari is not merely decoration, according to Tsuji, but a “will to decorate,” a deep spiritual need that engenders much of Japan’s artistic creativity. His summary of the principal characteristics of kazari in Japanese aesthetics—fantasy, surprise, exaggeration, playfulness, spontaneity, asymmetry, improvisation, and more—assists the reader in identifying the role of certain art objects in setting the psychological and spiritual tone of a space.

Rousmaniere’s essay, “Arts of Kazari: Japan on Display,” argues for the necessity of the viewer’s active participation in the concept of kazari. Not only does the object need to possess certain physical characteristics to encourage engagement, but the viewer also must possess a prior knowledge of the past uses and symbolism of the object as well as an understanding of something beyond what is actually represented by its physical form. This active interaction between viewer and object is exemplified by the history of two Chinese celadons—a celadon bowl called Bakohan and an incense burner known as Chidori, both of which gained considerable value through their association with major Japanese historical personages. Chidori, for example, was owned by Oda Nobunaga, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, and Tokugawa Ieyasu, all of whom displayed the celadon censer to reinforce their own cultural connection with the sophisticated culture of Song dynasty China. Through its connection with these three powerful men, the censer gained even more cultural weight to those viewers familiar with its biography.

To a museum curator, the most fascinating essay in this volume is “Reception Room Display in Medieval Japan,” by Kawai Masatomu of Keio University. The essay explores the concept of shitsurai—the installation of art objects—and the emergence of the doboshu art connoisseurs who arranged art in the homes of military leaders. In the Heian period, the noun shitsurai applied to the thoughtful placement of works to bring out their inherent beauty, in keeping with the aesthetic ideals of the Heian aristocracy. In the medieval period, under the rule of the military, the word acquired the sense of propriety, suggesting a set order or system. During this time, spatial divisions in homes increased, and reception rooms with low tables and alcoves were soon adorned similar to the worship halls in Buddhist temples, with flower vases, incense burners, and other ritual objects and offerings displayed in a regulated manner. Also from the Buddhist temple came the figures known as doboshu, originally monks who accompanied commanders on the battlefields to treat wounded and mourn the dead. These monks also entertained the commanders between battles and became very accomplished cultural figures in their own right. Later, they accompanied the military leaders into their residences and became stewards of their art collections. As Japan’s first “curators,” these men—most notably Shinno Noami, Shingei Geiami (1431–1485), and Shinso Soami (d.1525)—purchased and authenticated works of art, arranged their display in the reception rooms, or shoin, of the military leaders, and wrote records describing how they were shown and should be displayed. Dictating which art objects to exhibit and how they should be presented together on specific occasions, these masters of kazari had an immeasurable impact on the organization of Japanese interiors.

Following the essays, the catalogue arranges the show’s artworks in six thematic, and largely chronological, sections, each introduced by an informative essay: 1) China in Japan: The Shogun’s Court (fifteenth to sixteenth centuries); 2) Swagger of the New Military Elite (first half of the seventeenth century); 3) Styles of the Merchant Classes (late seventeenth to eighteenth centuries); 4) Fashions for Women of the Warrior Class (eighteenth to nineteenth centuries); 5) The Floating World on Display (late eighteenth to nineteenth centuries); and 6) Spectacular Festivals (seventeenth to nineteenth centuries). Within each section, the catalogue entries provide surprisingly detailed information on artistic technique, style, and symbolism, while also explaining the function and context of the object. For example, a catalogue entry for a small lacquered hand drum (ko-tsuzumi) (cat. no. 37) meticulously describes the wooden drum core lashed with horsehide skins and decorated with black lacquer and hiramaki-e (flat pictures formed by sprinkling powder on wet lacquer) and e-nashiji (pictures formed by sprinkling gold flakes on wet lacquer) designs of hydrangeas. It also explains that the drum was played held over the left shoulder and struck with the right hand and describes how the motif of the hydrangea was favored for decorating musical instruments because the subtle changes in the flowers colors mirror the tonal changes admired in music.

The volume is as sumptuous as it is scholarly, boasting 230 excellent full-color illustrations, including helpful close-ups of important details. A section of a large Kokutani-style dish decorated with an image of a calligraphy brush and ink stone (cat. no. 53) is shown larger than life, allowing an examination of the texture of the dish’s surface, notably the uneven glaze color and various glazing flaws characteristic of this early porcelain ware. What seems to be missing from the illustrations, however, (but was present in the accompanying exhibition) is one of a group of art objects assembled as they might have been in a reception room, tea house, or a room in the pleasure quarters. With kazari, a whole display is greater than the sum of its parts. It would be valuable in a volume like this to demonstrate visually rather than textually the interplay among the form, style, and decoration of, for example, a certain porcelain flower vase with a bronze censer and the painted image on a hanging scroll, all gathered for a particular season or occasion. For the uninitiated viewer and the Japanese art expert alike, connections that cannot be made through text alone appear more vividly when objects are shown together.

Although this catalogue and the accompanying exhibition focuses on arts created and collected in Japan, the discussion of kazari needs not be limited to Japanese art and aesthetics. The thoughtful display of art objects and their dynamic interaction with the viewer are topics of great importance to artists, art historians, and designers of all cultures—not to mention museum and gallery curators. However, it does seem clear from this volume that, until a century or so ago, the Japanese had such a strong desire to adorn and transform spaces that they actually gave this desire a name, kazari. The meaning of this word has been diluted to simple “decoration” during the course of Japan’s Westernization, but this volume succeeds in bringing attention to this important aspect of Japanese aesthetics and will change the way many people look at Japanese art.

Meher McArthur
Curator of East Asian Art, Pacific Asia Museum, Pasadena, CA

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