A spectacular loan exhibition devoted to masterworks of Japanese bamboo art is now on view at The Metropolitan Museum of Art (The Met), at New York, until February 4, 2018. Japanese Bamboo Art: The Abbey Collection at The Met explores the refined beauty and technical sophistication Japanese bamboo attained by the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, building on centuries of tradition.
Diane and Arthur Abbey have made the exhibition possible: their collection is one of the finest assemblages of Japanese baskets and bamboo sculpture in private hands. The majority of the works have never before been presented to the public, and more than seventy of them have been promised as gifts to The Met.
The couple started collecting Japanese bamboo art, along with Western contemporary art, during the 1990s. Now with more than two hundred baskets and bamboo sculpture, the collection encompasses pieces made in the late nineteenth century through masterworks of the post-war period, all created by Living National Treasure artists.
A monumental bamboo sculpture by Tanabe Chikuunsai IV (b. 1973), which is a site-specific installation created for The Met, the exhibition highlights key stages in the modern history of Japanese bamboo art by introducing the bamboo masters, gradually revealing the emergence of a contemporary bamboo art.
Bamboo is a vigorous long-lived perennial evergreen, which thrives in diverse climates. Works made from Bamboo or recording its many and varied elements offers an exciting and different world in art. It has a tensile strength that rivals steel.
Devastation may lay it low, but it never breaks and over the centuries many would come to view it with an educated mind and eye, learning how to appreciate its many qualities.
The opening up of Japan after 1853 when American Commodore Matthew Perry re-established after 200 years, trade and discourse between it and the western world, brought about monumental change as its attitudes and philosophies, passions and fashions impacted on so many aspects of western culture.
Japan’s influence in the world of modern design and art in the west took off after the Great Exhibition of 1862 in London, which created a fashion for all things Japanese, including a love of horizontal, vertical and diagonal lines, heavily influencing and inspiring artists of what is known as the Aesthetic Movement, which lasted throughout the 1870’s and 1880’s.
All cultures on earth have basket weaving traditions, and it was during the late nineteenth century it became recognised in Japan as an art form, transcending craft. Curated by Monika Bincsik, Assistant Curator in the Department of Asian Art at The Met, the exhibition has been displayed, organized broadly by three geographical production areas, Kansai, Kanto, and Kyushu.
Showcasing expressive power, masterworks by pioneer bamboo artists of the Meiji (1868–1912) and Taisho (1912–1926) periods and later masters, including Iizuka Rokansai who created innovative works, became a foundation for contemporary bamboo art. A selection of paintings and decorative arts explore related themes, such as the four seasons, floral compositions (ikebana), and the tea ceremony. To complement the exhibition, The Met will also offer a variety of education programs, including gallery tours and a Sunday at The Met on October 22, when ‘Living National Treasure’ bamboo artist Fujinuma Noboru demonstrates various weaving techniques.
A preference for asymmetry is a long tradition in Japanese art, which was encouraged by Taoist and Zen teachings, intellectualising it as an element and characteristic of Japanese aesthetics.
In Japan formality and uniformity of design was considered fatal to the freshness of the imagination. It is in nature where raw forms are symbolised, suggested or implied and they offered solace to the soul of generations to come through its art.
Highlights include a Basket (ca. 1877–80s), by Hayakawa Shokosai I (1815–1897) used for transporting tea utensils for the Sencha tea ceremony introduced to Japan in the mid 17th century where tealeaves were used instead of powdered tea. He is believed to be the first basket master craftsman to sign his works
Moon reflected on water (1929), by Sakaguchi Sounsai (1899–1967) the first bamboo work accepted into a public, government-sponsored art exhibition, in 1929. An offering or fruit tray with intersecting circles design (ca. 1947), it is made of smoked timber bamboo.
Shono Shounsai (1904–1974), who, in 1967, became the first Living National Treasure of bamboo art, has an early refined, conceptual piece in the show.
One award-winning work incorporates a flexible bamboo species called men’yadake by Honma Hideaki (b. 1959), who began studying bamboo art with his father, Honma Kazuaki, after losing sight in one eye while serving in the Japanese Air Force.
Today many and varied cultural concepts are wrapped up in the traditions attached to basket making, providing new and exciting ways for contemporary artists to express their reverence and respect for ancient craftsmen, while inspiring and motivating others to go beyond boundaries set before.
For any artist in Japan their works were always an outward manifestation of their profoundly held and experienced sense of spirituality. The outward became a vehicle for the inward; the place where true beauty is perceived by only those able to mentally complete the incomplete.
Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2017
Japanese Bamboo Art: The Abbey Collection
The Met, New York
June 13, 2017 – February 4, 2018
Exhibitions are Free with Museum Admission