Arts of Japan: Head of a Guardian, Japan, Kamakura period, 13th century. Hinoki cypress wood with lacquer on cloth, pigment, rock crystal, metal, 22 56 x 26 x 35.4 cm, Brooklyn Museum, gift of Mr and Mrs Alastair B Martin, the Guennol Collection. All Photos: Brooklyn Museum

Asian Art Newspaper takes a look at the newly opened Arts of Japan gallery at Brooklyn Museum, New York, which features kimono, noh masks, teaware, Japanese prints, lacquerware, Shinto sculpture, and much more.

Following a multiyear renovation and the reopening of the Arts of Korea collection, the Brooklyn Museum has opened its two new galleries highlighting the important and diverse collection of works from China and Japan. The galleries opened last month with the Arts of China and Arts of Japan galleries featuring masterworks, as well as rarely seen or never-before-shown objects from the museum’s collections of Asian art.

New Acquisitions and Contemporary Works

Both galleries also highlight new acquisitions and contemporary works, connecting centuries of artistic practice through common themes and mediums. The galleries have been closed since 2013 with the first phase of the reinstallation unveiled in 2017, when the gallery for Korean art reopened. The project continues and will be followed by galleries for arts of South Asia, Buddhism, Southeast Asia, and the Himalayas. The installation of the Brooklyn Museum’s Arts of China collection was organised by Susan L Beningson, Assistant Curator, Asian Art. The installation of the Arts of Japan collection was organised by Joan Cummins, Lisa and Bernard Selz Senior Curator,
Asian Art.

Arts of Japan Gallery

The Arts of Japan gallery traces over 2,000 years of innovation in Japanese art, including Buddhist temple sculptures, ukiyo-e prints, paintings, and lacquerware. Among the masterworks on display is an oversized painted wood head of a guardian figure from the 13th century that was meant to ward off enemies in a Buddhist temple. It features the energy and exaggerated musculature that typify the best sculptures of the Kamakura period (1185-1333). Also on display is a pair of gilded folding screens depicting fishnets hanging out to dry on an abstracted, grassy shoreline. Closely related to screens in the Japanese Imperial Household Collection, this pair has been recognised by the Japanese government, which sponsored its conservation in 1995. Upgrades to the gallery’s climate control and casework make it possible to show this important but fragile 17th-century painting in Brooklyn for the first time since it was restored.

Japanese Contemporary Ceramics

The presentation also features contemporary ceramics that represent the cutting edge of ceramic achievement in Japan. By placing these contemporary pieces next to ancient works, the reinstallation illuminates points of continuity throughout the country’s 10,000-year history of advancements in ceramics. The Japan gallery is organised by thematic sections: Ancient Japan, Temple Sculpture in Wood, Tea Taste in Japanese Ceramics, Ash and Clay, Contemporary Japanese Ceramics, Lacquerware, Art of the Ainu People, and Woodblock Prints.

The Arts of Japan gallery also houses a uniquely large display of Ainu artefacts. The Ainu people were an indigenous group that lived in northern Japan, where they developed a distinct culture and language from that of central and southern Japan.

Ainu Wood Carvings

The Brooklyn Museum has a collection of Ainu wood carvings and costume elements that is unparalleled outside of Japan. Highlights include an Ainu robe, in which an extensive use of cotton distinguishes it from the more common clothing made from elm bark, however, the network of spiralling decorative motifs is typical of Ainu ornamentation. The museum hopes the presence of the Ainu collection inspires conversations about the ethnic and linguistic diversity within Japan, a diversity that is often overlooked by Western scholars.

Brooklyn Museum, Collecting since the early 1900s

The Brooklyn Museum has collected Japanese works of art since the early 1900s. Since its important holdings of Ainu objects were acquired in 1912, the Museum has continued to be a pioneer in the collecting of Japanese folk art and ceramics created by living masters. The museum’s Arts of Japan collection is one of the largest sub-collections within the larger holdings of Asian art, consisting of roughly 7,000 objects. In order to provide greater access to these objects, as well as to protect the light-sensitive paintings, prints, lacquered objects, and textiles from extended exposure, displays will be changed on a regular basis. Visitors are encouraged to return to the galleries regularly to see new masterworks and experience the depth of the collection.

The Arts of Japan gallery, Brooklyn Museum of Art, New York,