Asian Art Newspaper discovers Japanese works of art in important American private collections, including the John C Weber and Mr and Mrs John D Rockefeller 3rd collection, that explore the art of impermanence in an exhibition on show at Asia Society, New York

This unique joint exhibition, the Art of Impermanence, of superior Japanese works of art from these highly important American collections carries the visual impact of power, beauty, and quality. These comprise its powerful visual message, but the message which underlies the entire exhibition is much more complex and esoteric. True. All true. These 70 works of art carry a much more subtle philosophical message, to be exact, one of impermanence ‚Äď impermanence of life and the impermanence of everything that has ever existed and will ever exist. As the American novelist Louis L‚ÄôAmour famously stated, ‚ÄėThe only thing that never changes is that everything changes‚Äô. One point that must be made is that impermanence does not mean all residual traces of the ephemeral are extinct.

This is not intended as anything melancholic or sad, but as an acceptance of the eternal ‚Äď change itself ‚Äď as impermanence has always been an integral part of Japanese life and culture. This acceptance of the ephemeral means that there is a relief to one‚Äôs senses and spirit as there is no longer human resistance; it is something that is part of the observation of life as it was, presently is and what it may will be. The pondering of things the way they were does not necessarily mean the ruminations of impermanence are sad, but are probably softer, more akin to wistful remembrance. Because the omnipresence of ephemera in life and the ways in which it has been manifested, the exhibition has been divided into four major segments: Retrieving Lost Worlds; Buddhism: Perpetual Impermanence; Tea: Choreographed Ephemerality; and Transforming Impermanence into Art.

Retrieving Lost Worlds

Retrieving Lost Worlds begins with ceramic and stone sculptures and vessels from the Jomon period of roughly circa 15,000 BC to AD 300, but for our purposes, we are mainly concerned with the first millennium BC through the second century. It was a period in which the great ‚Äėkeyhole‚Äô tumuli were built. They have not been excavated and probably never will be. The coil-constructed clay figures, haniwa, of the differing styles in this exhibition, were certainly constructed as protective elements to the tombs. Being a pre-Buddhist animist society, it had probably incorporated an older Chinese shamanist belief that such objects could pass powers on to the deceased. This connection may have possibly assisted the metaphysical act of the transmigration of the soul, but so very little is known of the culture that there is no way of knowing if it were the case or not. What is credible is that impermanence appears to have been part of Japanese culture and art since that time.

The majority of the works in the exhibition date from the later Jomon period of the late first millennium BC to the 5th century. Many are of the elaborately constructed jars with rims of such complex ropework that the base serves almost as a display stand. The group also includes coil-built haniwa in the forms of a caparisoned war horse, two men in armour, a flask in the shape of a leather bag and others, but there are two architectonic stone objects of almost geometric designs. One is a double-tiered finial, but the more beautiful of them is a slightly oval ring in green tuff carved with regular ribs that make it resemble an Art Deco brooch ( 7).

Accepting Impermanence in Buddhism

The section Buddhism: Accepting Impermanence discusses the truth around which Buddhism revolves: man is cursed with the eternal cycle of birth and rebirth because he had not achieved Enlightenment in the latest life cycle because he retained possessions and desires. He is therefore doomed to rebirth until Enlightenment is achieved by rejecting all human desire. What is remarkable about this part of the catalogue is that it depicts, either in sculpture or in ink, the differing directions that Buddhism took in Japan.

The two dominant esoteric Buddhist sects are Tengai and Shingon, both brought to Japan in the year 806, both being strict in discipline and esoteric in content, meaning that both schools believed that their highly complex bodies of knowledge should be restricted to those who possessed the elevated state of mind to understand and absorb and, therefore, it was something of an exclusive club. Originating in Tibetan Buddhism, they brought with them a panoply of prayers, cosmic diagrams (mandala) incantations, mantras, and instruments of worship, such as vajra, ghanta, vaisnavara, phurbu, mala, and others.

The works of art in this section of Art of Impermanence comprise sutra, including a 14th-century hanging scroll of Dainichi Nyorai in the form of Ichiji Kinrin Buccho (cat. no. 24), the Buddha of Infinite Light, the primary Buddha in Shingon (True Word); and two hanging scrolls of Fudo Myoo (One of the Acala, the Five Kings of Light,); a stunning rock-crystal Kamakura reliquary housing five transparent quartz pebbles forming a grant-wishing Five-Element Pagoda; and other articles of Shingon (True Worship) of Shingon nature. Shingon and Tedai were not the only early Buddhist schools to take hold in Japan, however, the earliest was the worship of Shakyamuni, the Historical Buddha, and the exhibition contains a remarkably rare, Early Nara period, circa 700, bronze of the Shaka Buddha from the Weber Collection. It is softly cast and with a rich ‚Äėwet‚Äô patina.

Pure Land arrived in the late 7th or early 8th century and its later importance proved to permanently alter the landscape of Japanese Buddhism. With the advent of a bloody civil strife, which lasted almost continually until 1603, the ordinary citizen was caught in the middle and his daily life became a living hell, as death and misery stalked the land.

Fudo Myoo

Into this brew stepped two figures of worship of national importance, the Fudo Myoo, The Kings of Light, particularly Fudo. Bejewelled, ferocious in appearance and surrounded by flames of power, he holds a rope in one hand to lasso evil-doers and a sword to punish them in the other ‚Äď it is no wonder that he became the patron saint, as it were, for the entire military class. There are two paintings and one sculpture of him in the exhibition and together they are a rare exhibition occurrence and worth a look to appreciate the sense of empowerment a devotee might feel. The catalogue that accompanies Art of Impermanence explains the origins and traditional depiction of the Namikiri Fudo Myoo, the figure on show in this exhibition. Legend has it that Kukai (Kobo Daishi, 774-835), founder of Shingon Buddhism in Japan, was given a statue of Fudo Myoo when he was in China. He brought the sculpture with him when he sailed back to Japan. His ship encountered a violent storm and, in fear, Kukai prayed to the statue, upon which Fudo wielded his sword to cut the waves and calm the sea. This story is believed to be the origin for the production of images called Namikiri Fudo Myoo (Fudo cutting through waves) in Japan.

The Fudo Myoo followers would comprise a small percentage of the population, but the New Land branch of Buddhism could and would involve the majority of the population that lived in fear. Centred on the worship of Amida, the Buddha of the Western Paradise, it was believed that just the invoking of his saving name, he would appear at the moment of death to guide the deceased to the Western Paradise. It is a concept first developed during the rise of Daoism in China during the middle Han dynasty and proved to be, after all, the ‚Äėmagic pill‚Äô to Salvation.

The Tea Ceremony

The next section, in Art of Impermanence, Tea: Choreographed Ephemerality, deals with the Tea Ceremony, based on the simple taking of tea as an aid to meditation in Chan Buddhist monasteries, it is all about the interaction among people, an awareness of the sense of space, appreciation of the beauty of the objects in use, and a sense of ‚Äėoneness‚Äô. The ceremony itself is probably the single event in Japan that can touch the greatest number of aspects of Japanese culture.

To avoid any visual connection, or comparison between the exhibition and the arrangement of an actual tea house, no effort has been made to evoke one. Instead, by exhibiting the works as individual pieces, one can evoke the closeness that one would have with it during the ceremony itself. The exhibition is particularly strong on chawan (tea bowls), with several different kilns represented, mainly the Mino variations. One of the truly ‚Äėhuman‚Äô qualities of chawan are the intentional imperfections in their creations. Yes, they may adhere to the shapes and glazes of their different styles, but beyond that, there is no strict form being followed. They always contain the personal decisions of the potter of where to impress a groove, or how the shape has been adjusted to fit the hand, they are all unique, to use an often-misused term, and therein is the quiet joy that is received through the hands of the celebrant.

Art of Impermanence: Japanese Lacquer

Unlike ceramics which show traces of human touch, Negoro shows its age and with it its own ‚Äėpersonality‚Äô created by the wear on the red outer layer of lacquer. These ‚Äėpersonalities‚Äô are in evidence in the four Negoro lacquered exhibits, two Nanbokucho and two Muromachi: a bold water jar, an elegantly simple serving spoon for rice, a classic, wide-shouldered, bottle for rice wine offerings, a serving tray based on Song-dynasty originals, and a cylindrical container for rice. The container is a simple, covered cylinder of typically Negoro boldness with raised horizontal divisions, which has had the red outer layer of lacquer worn away almost completely by handling over the centuries, revealing the wood grain below. The serving spoon for rice has been gently handled for centuries and the traces of so many hands have left behind, mainly on the edges. The serving tray has been more handled more gently, but the bold water bottle, based loosely on the shape of a Chinese meiping, shows what are attractive streaks of wear.

The sentiments found in Transforming Impermanence into Art are not a matter of simple transformation. It is a matter of transmogrification ‚Äď of redefining an intangible sensation into tangible form. The passage of time and the physical changes that inevitably occur, can and do manifest themselves in some people as sad, but are they sad, or melancholy, or more accurately simply wistful?

‚ÄėOver time, it took on the notion of an introspective type of beauty brought on by solitude,‚Äô so sums up the Asia Society‚Äôs pre-publication announcement. The most obvious indication of the passage of time are depictions of the changes and the four seasons are universally understood as such. There two pairs of screens here. One, Rice Farming in the Four Seasons, a mid-16th century pair attributed to Kano Motonobu (1476-1550), successfully makes use of the pair‚Äôs great length for them to fit seamlessly. The other pair by Tosa Mitsuoki (1617-1691), Blossoming Cherry Trees at Yoshino, depicts one of Japan‚Äôs most famous sights. The indication of impermanence here is that the cherry blossoms are symbols of samurai, who like the blossoms, fall in their prime.

Art of Impermanence: Poetry

Poetry is a magical language that came into prominence during the Heian. Here one thinks of the Genji monogotari (Tales of Genji), the most famous piece of Japanese literature ever written, created in the early 11th century by the noblewoman, Murasaki Shikibu. Sadly the original has been lost, but the story survives in many retellings. There are also a few chapters still missing, but a Kamakura-period manuscript compiled by the Kyoto poet Fujiwara Teika (1162-1241), as a version of the earlier work, contains a missing chapter that was recently discovered in Tokyo. The combination of poetry and sosho is heaven-made. The slow, organic strokes of this style of brushmanship appear as contemplative meanderings and perfectly suited to much of the feeling of wistfulness that Japanese poetry can invoke.

The exhibition explores the art of impermanence and has a glorious number of examples of poetry, many of them appearing in twos, including a portrait of one of the Famous Poets of that era, paired with a sample of his or her poetry on the handscroll exhibited, often with numerous expressions of loneliness and solitude.

The best example of the art of impermanence has been saved for the final piece in the exhibition, a 19th-century jinbaori, a campaign coat worn over armour. Of black English wool, it has been emblazoned on the back in silver-brocade silk, bone, gold embroidery and silk metallic thread with a tattered fan. The gold ribs are intact, but the paper of the fan itself is tattered and hanging in shreds, a classic metaphor for life itself, where bones may last some while but, in little time, flesh falls away.


The Art of Impermanence: Japanese Works of Art from the John C Weber Collection and the Mr and Mrs John D Rockefeller, 3rd Collection, until 26 April at Asia Society, New York, A catalogue accompanies the exhibition. As Asia Society is currently closed because of Covid-19, you can explore the themes in the exhibition by watching this video: