August 17, 2012 

Image courtesy of the Japan Times

CULCON panelist and JUSFC commissioner Dr. Anne Nishimura Morse helped curate an exhibition at the Tokyo National Museum earlier this year. The exhibition, “Japanese Masterpieces from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston,” is being displayed at the Nagoya/Boston Museum of Fine Arts until the end of the year.  Morse is the William and Helen Pounds Senior Curator of Japanese Art at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Morse said the exhibition was the culmination of 15-plus years of re-cataloguing the works of the MFA, and five years of artwork restoration.

One of the goals of the exhibition, Morse said, was to show the Japanese people that the MFA values and appreciates its Japanese art collection—which Morse said is the finest in the world outside Japan.

“We greatly believe that we are very privileged to have this collection,” she said. “We also feel that it’s a great responsibility on our part to be able to share it. So we wanted to select the best things in our collection and make sure people realize they are accessible. We wanted to emphasize that Japanese art has been a great ambassador for Japan in the West, and has created a greater understanding of Japan.”

The exhibition’s highlights included the hand scrolls “Minister Kibi’s Adventures in China” from the Heian period and “Night Attack on the Sanjo Palace” from the Kamakura period. “Night Attack on the Sanjo Palace” is one of three hand scrolls from the “Illustrated Scrolls of the Events of the Heiji Era.” The Tokyo National Museum and the Seikado Bunko Art Museum displayed their own scrolls from the “Illustrated Scrolls of the Events of the Heiji Era” at the same time—making it possible for the people of Tokyo to see all three extant scrolls in the same city, a very rare opportunity.

Another exciting piece from the collection was Edo period artist Soga Shohaku’s ink on paper painting “Dragon and Clouds.” The painting consists of eight panels, and was recently remounted in its original fusuma, or sliding door, format.

“We decided for this exhibition that [the panels] really ought to be returned to their fusuma format,” Morse said. “So, many of the old repairs were taken off at that time, and then the pieces were put together in fusuma format, which really allowed us to see what they looked like in the 19th century before they were taken apart.”

Other pieces included Buddhist paintings and sculptures, Kano School paintings, medieval ink painting, swords and textiles, and early modern paintings.

Although about half of the museum’s 100,000 Japanese works are woodblock prints, none were included in the exhibition at the Tokyo National Museum.

Morse said prints were not included because there was not enough room in the exhibition. She said “Japanese Masterpieces from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston” was defined by what would be considered treasures in Japan, and focused on pre-Meiji era art.

“The Japanese think very much in terms of how they would classify things,” Morse said. “They wanted to be able to show that the Museum of Fine Arts collection has a lot of works that if they were still in Japan, would be classified as national treasures or important cultural properties. Generally the Japanese classification system is such that it favors these earlier paintings and sculpture.”

Narrowing down the MFA’s vast collection of Japanese art to 90 pieces was the greatest challenge in putting together the exhibition, Morse said.

It is hard to talk about the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston’s Japanese art collection without mentioning Ernest Fenollosa, Kakuzo Okakura, William Sturgis Bigelow, and Edward Sylvester Morse. These four men, who lived in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, had essential roles in providing the base of the MFA’s impressive collection. Fenollosa, Bigelow and Morse were all Bostonians who spent time in Japan and amassed Japanese art, later donating to the MFA.

Their influence continues even today. Morse estimates 65 to 75 percent of the Museum of Fine Art’s collection comes from their efforts.

“I think what makes them different and what makes the MFA collection almost unique in the West, is that because [Fenollosa, Bigelow, and Morse] lived in Japan, studied with the Japanese, tried to listen to Japanese critics about what they thought was important…they really tried to understand Japanese art from a Japanese point of view rather than a Western point of view,” Morse said. “So although we have a very strong collection of woodblock prints, we are unique in having such a strong collection of Buddhist art, and Kano school paintings, which are things that the Japanese themselves thought were important.”

Morse said the exhibition was extremely well received in Tokyo. “We had an attendance of over 540,000 people, which is a huge attendance,” she said.

The exhibition at the Tokyo National Museum ended on June 10, and is at the Nagoya/Boston Museum of Fine Arts until December 9, 2012.