Kyoto: Splendours of the Ancient Capital

Portrait, possibly Taira no Shigemori, Kamakura period, 13th century, hanging scroll, ink and colours on silk, 143 x 112.2 cm. Collection of Jingo-ji Temple, Kyoto, entrusted to the Kyoto National Museum. National Treasure. On view 13 Sept to 13 Oct

FOLLOWING THE opening of the Heisei-kan (lit. Hall of Spreading Peace) that was built for special seasonal exhibitions at the Tokyo National Museum some years ago, a new Heisei Chishinkan (Hall of Discovering the New) opens in the grounds of the Kyoto National Museum on the 13 September this year. The new building will provide exhibition space for displaying treasures from the museum’s extensive collection and loans of mainly pre-modern Japanese artworks, and will also include an auditorium and a garden-view restaurant.

This ambitious project has been some 16 years in the making and has emerged triumphant at last after the usual budgetary headaches from which almost no institution has been spared since Japan’s economic bubble burst nearly a quarter of a century ago. Like many other capital cities in the world Kyoto sits on layers of history and as the site had been the location of various administrative and religious buildings dating back to the 12th century, a thorough archaeological excavation had to be completed before building could commence.

The design was entrusted to the internationally well-known architect, Yoshio Taniguchi, famous for buildings such as the Gallery of Hōryūji Treasures at the Tokyo National Museum and the reformed MOMA in New York, and the new Chishinkan is said to be equipped with all that is state-of-the-art: earthquake-mitigation, humidity-control, etc. for the conservation of precious art works. It would be nice to think that such attention to detail will extend to the illumination of these objects when they are exhibited as with few exceptions Japanese museums never seem to get this vital matter right. This despite their own native writer/aesthete Jun’ichiro Tanizaki having explained the subtleties of the subject better than anyone in his seminal, In Praise of Shadows. We shall soon see.

The new Chishinkan replaces an earlier exhibition hall that was designed by Keiichi Morita in 1966 and will stand as a modern counterpoint to the heavy form of the 19th-century Meiji Kotokan that was the original Kyoto Museum. In the words of the Museum Director, Johei Sasaki, ‘The Kyoto National Museum enters into this new era of its history with a fresh imperative: to find new ways to make the Heisei Chishinkan into a centre for museum visitors from Japan and around the world to discover and experience the quintessence of Kyoto culture’.

Whereas the old Kotokan standsas a purely Western, palatial edifice in Second Empire style, with arches, convex roofs, and flattened Corinthian-styled columns dec-orating the walls, appearing solid and seemingly indestructible, the new Chishinkan will show the same light, contemporary clean lines that we have seen in the Tokyo Horyuji Gallery, here expressed in glass, steel and limestone, and also reflected in a shallow water-pool. Nothing could be more modern and yet the rectilinear lines and forms of what we see as modern architecture descending in part from Bauhaus ideals, derive to a great extent from the seventeenth-century Katsura Rikyu Imperial Villa located just a few kilometres away in Western Kyoto. There, those pre-war Western tourists with any artistic sensibilities were startled then delighted on seeing white-paper shoji screens, straight-cut beams and pillars of bare wood, married with a garden of carefully controlled nature – all completely at odds with the fussy, over-decorated buildings and interiors of the West with their parterre gardens and lawns. Less is more was born of Zen and Tea Ceremony ideals right here in Kyoto and still today informs our modernist aesthetic tastes.

After its completion, the new Chishinkan rested empty for a full year ‘to allow for the complete drying and stabilisation of their construction materials’ but now the galleries will be used for the first time with an opening exhibition from the 13 September.  Kyoto: Splendours of the Ancient Capital celebrates this new direction of the Kyoto National Museum and displays major cultural treasures from this city, which was an Imperial Capital for over a thousand years. From what preview information is available, a major treat waits us. All the new galleries are involved in the inaugural exhibition, although it is slightly confusing that the galleries all have different closing dates for the exhibition.

Kyoto was established as the country’s imperial capital during the late 8th century, and even though ruling war-lords had moved their military and administrative courts to other locations from time to time, the city remained the residence of the Imperial Family and court nobles until the Meiji Restoration in 1868. The city has been famous as a leading cultural centre throughout its history having given birth to diverse arts reflecting the tastes and social milieux of the city’s residents. Constituting what is considered as classical culture is that of the Imperial court; élite, refined, secluded, bound by ritual and fastidious punctilio, and focussed on the poetry of love, nature and the passing seasons. Other genres include the arts of Buddhism: those prior to the arrival of Zen with a concentration on didactic religious painting and sculpture, and those of Zen – together with its layman’s practice, the Tea Ceremony – that has had a profound influence on almost all Japanese artistic expression for the past six hundred years or so. And to cater to endless demands from Kyoto’s élite, guilds of craftsmen strove for perfection in lacquer, ceramics metal, garden design, paintings, textiles and all manner of wooden objects from buildings to furnishings. The city has been rich in artistic genius for centuries; an Asian rival to Venice and Florence.

The city itself was modelled in a grid form of streets after Chang’An (present-day Xi’an), the cosmopolitan Tang-dynasty capital of China that at the time was held in awe by the Japanese who were so much under its cultural influence, and was also a major Buddhist centre and an international trading post with links that stretched across Asia to westward kingdoms and empires. The site was chosen after much consideration of geomantic practice and beliefs: facing south to Osaka Bay, surrounded on three sides by sheltering forested mountains and traversed by clear fast-flowing rivers, together with ample agricultural land, all calculated to provide the best life for its inhabitants and allow for the passage of benevolent dragons.

The unique Japanese cycle of five seasons – Winter, Spring, Rainy Monsoon, Summer and Autumn – sustain lush forests and a wide range of flowering plants. Blessed with such a favourable location, the city evolved to embrace nature in its famous gardens including those of the great temples packed with symbolism and suggestion of religious ideals, or simple enclosures of moss and a few ferns to encourage air circulation in the traditional machiya – the terraced shop/residences of the many town merchants. Spared the bombs of the second world war, Kyoto could have qualified as one of the most beautiful cities in the world until the late 1960s since when, except for temples, shrines and palaces, almost all old buildings have been replaced with constructions made of vulgar modern materials, unpleasant of appearance, unfriendly to nature, and with few exceptions, lacking any architectural merit. They do not age well and the dragons are certainly not pleased.

Nevertheless the temples and shrines are huge landowners in the city and its surroundings, and it is within their precincts and those of Imperial palaces and villas that time moves slowly and traditional values survive. Throughout their history they have all been major patrons of artists, craftsmen and garden designers and still own treasures of national importance. For security and conservation many of these have been entrusted to the Kyoto National Museum which, together with its own holdings owned by the nation, now looks after thousands of objects including 50 National Treasures and 110 Important Cultural Properties so designated for their rarity, historic importance or extraordinary artistic quality.

One of the early Buddhist sculptures that will be displayed is a 12th-century statue of the Priest Hoshi (original Chinese name: Baozhi), owned by the Saio-ji Temple in Kyoto and entrusted to the museum for safekeeping. The cypress-wood image portrays a legendary 5th-century Chinese monk famed for unorthodox and often supernatural behaviour. It is said that while Hoshi was once sitting for a portrait, his face split to reveal a manifestation of his inner true nature as the bodhisattva Avalokitesvara, known in Japan as the deity Kannon, one of the highest ranking in the Buddhist pantheon but widely revered by common folk as a Madonna-like goddess of mercy and child-protection. This is a peerless example of late Heian (794-1185) religious sculpture and the only known image of Priest Hoshi in Japan.

Apart from the otherworldly sight of one face splitting to reveal another, the statue shows the development from rather static, plump, symmetrical figures we associate with earlier Heian sculpture, to the more naturalistic, asymmetrical images with realistic proportions that reach their apotheosis in the Kamakura-period (1185-1333) portrait-sculptures of famous priests, some of which can also be seen in the exhibition. In this statue, the face of the inner, Kannon deity looks almost identical to that of the outer face of Priest Hoshi and both could well be of a live model. Priest Hoshi was obviously male and the deity emerging from his split countenance looks male too. Just why the deity went through a gender shift and has been depicted as female for some hundreds of years, (although we see wispy moustaches and beards on Kannon paintings well into the Muromachi period), is no doubt keeping a few Ph.D. candidates busy. I suspect the answer will not be simple.

Kyoto’s great temple and palace complexes provided space for monumental paintings in the form of sliding fusuma doors and folding screens, and various schools of artists were established for their creation. Classical figures from Chinese legend together with landscapes, birds and flowers inspired most of their works, but during the early 17th century, the vivid life of the everyday city attracted their attention. Now at peace and enjoying an economic boom after the civil wars of the previous two centuries, Kyoto together with other emerging Japanese cities, was beginning to enjoy life. Even though low on the rigid social scale, merchants and craftsmen were beginning to make and enjoy their wealth and – in a pattern seen around the world – gradually absorbed and adopted the styles and tastes of their superiors. The calendar year was filled with parties and festivals celebrating seasonal delights, and the pursuit of pleasure blossomed as a game of one-upmanship.

We see an vivid portrayal of such festivities in a pair of 17th-century screen paintings of the famous summer Gion Festival that still takes place in Kyoto every July in a form more-or-less unchanged for centuries. The unknown artist’s view is from a roughly 45 degree angle as if from a helicopter and shows the procession of giant wheeled floats being manoeuvred through the streets through stylised clouds. Both streets and clouds are of gold leaf, the clouds textured with a diamond pattern – a favourite 17th-century technique – that emphasise the splendour of the scene and contrasts with the almost-black Shijo River in the near distance. The composition is far from naturalistic; the humans depicted are out of proportion, street lines do not converge, and, oblivious to perspective, the rice fields of Ohara seem but a hop away, nevertheless the artistic compression of the scene and use of patterned gold is brilliant and holds our interest. One can just imagine how these screens would have glowed in the dark recesses of a palace, reflecting the light of candles, or soft daylight diffused through paper shoji. (Now curators, we are going to get the lighting right, aren’t we? Please.)

In order to structure the Splendours of the Ancient Capital exhibition, the Chishinkan galleries will display thematically: Heian and Kamakura Sculpture, Illustrated narrative Handscrolls, Calligraphy, Textiles and Costumes, Metalwork including Swords and Religious Utensils, Lacquerware, Portraits, Buddhist Painting, Medieval Ink Painting, Momoyama-Edo Painting, Chinese Painting (mainly Southern-Song – Yuan from old daimyo and temple collections), Ceramics and Archaeological Relics. This is a well-conceived arrangement and an admirable selection of masterpieces to attract both scholar and connoisseur.
MICHAEL DUNN

Kyoto National Museum, 527 Chaya-cho, Higashiyama-ku, Kyoto, Japan 605-0931, www.kyohaku.go.jp.

Kyoto: Splendours of the Ancient Capital, opens 13 September. NB: not all of the objects in the catalogue will be on display throughout the exhibition as some will need to rest for conservation purposes.