Sunday, November 08, 2015
Looking East at the Asian Art Museum
One of the best traveling exhibits to ever appear at the Asian Art Museum has just been installed through February 7th.
Compiled from the permanent collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, the show's name is a mouthful: Looking East: How Japan Inspired Monet, Van Gogh, and Other Western Artists. The 1888 painting above by Frenchman Louis Dumolin, Carp Banners in Kyoto, is a literal "inspiration" of the French fad for everything japonisme.
The exhibit is smart and subtle in charting the cross-cultural explosion that occurred when Japan was forcibly opened to international trade in the 1850s, and Boston's collection is so deep in both Western and Asian art that it can illustrate the affinities, cultural projections, and contradictions in fascinating detail. By the way, you are allowed to take photos without flash at the exhibit, a generous and enlightened decision by the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
The installation is well done, pairing Japanese works like the 1857 woodblock print Bamboo Yards, Kyobashi Bridge by Utagawa Hiroshige I with Monet's 1900 painting, The Water Lily Pond.
Mary Cassatt's 1902 painting, Maternal Caress is flanked by the early 19th century woodblock print Otome by Kikukawa Eizan illustrating the same subject.
Sometimes the correspondence is more a matter of attitude and style, as in the woodblock prints of famous Japanese actors in their roles by Utagawa Kunisada paired with a striking Van Gogh painting from 1988 of Postman Joseph Roulin.
A new security guard was patrolling one of the galleries during the press preview, and he mentioned that he had never been around such famous European paintings before as I stopped in front of Matisse's 1924 Vase of Flowers.
The Western art in the exhibit isn't all European, though, and there are representatives of Boston area artists depicting the Oriental art collections of Boston Brahmins, such as the 1921 painting above, The Silver Screen, by Frank Weston Benson.
The cultural influences were bidirectional, and it is sometimes difficult to guess whether a piece is Western or Japanese without looking at the wall labels. The 1925 print of Yosemite's El Capitan, for instance, was created by Yoshida Hiroshi. It would be interesting to see a mirrored exhibit, Looking West, examining the European influence on Japanese artists during the same period.