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Enhancing East Asia

A new look for the Japanese and Korean galleries
April 22, 2016

Man Strolling with a Boy Carrying Flowering Branch c. 1810. Kitagawa Fujimaro (Japanese, 1790–1850). Hanging scroll; ink and color on silk; 180.4 x 48.3 cm. The Kelvin Smith Collection, given by Mrs. Kelvin Smith 1985.256

Visitors to the north wing over the past few months have no doubt noticed the temporary closing of the Korea Foundation Gallery and the Kelvin and Eleanor Smith Galleries of Japanese and Korean Art. A team led by the museum’s curatorial, conservation, and design staff, along with members from the editorial, interpretation, photography, production, registrar, and security divisions, has been working to enhance the galleries. They have been reconfiguring the space and the casework, performing conservation treatments on works to be installed, generating new photography for the website, and conducting new research for the labels, among other undertakings. When the galleries reopen as part of our centennial celebration in June, everyone will be able to enjoy new rotations of the museum’s permanent collections of Japanese and Korean art in a much grander setting designed to showcase the treasures of the two collections and to highlight their diversity.


Better flow; access from the Breuer wing Revised gallery layout

Major changes in the galleries’ design and configuration include a convenient new entrance from the Breuer building that comes with the addition of gallery space for displays of artworks from across Asia. Another significant change is the elimination of walls within the Japanese and Korean galleries, thus opening up long vistas for the enhanced appreciation of major works of art, and making it possible to experience a sweeping view of the entire installation of all three galleries. The opening up of the space was made possible by closing a pair of sliding glass doors that led out to the alleé overlooking the atrium. Thus internal walls are no longer needed to prevent uncontrolled light from reaching the highly light-sensitive collections. The works can now be displayed to best effect within logical narratives based on culture, media, time periods, and of course, aesthetic pleasure. 

Although the sliding doors from the atrium originally were meant to serve as the main entrance to the Japanese and Korean collections, studies since those galleries opened showed that most visitors entered instead from either the Arlene M. and Arthur S. Holden Textile Gallery or the Himalayan gallery. In the reconfigured space, entering the Korean gallery from the Himalayan gallery, with its Tibetan and Nepalese Buddhist painting, statuary, and ritual implements, brings a sense of continuity, because visitors will first encounter works of Korean Buddhist art, including statuary, ritual implements, and containers for sacred texts. Entering the Japanese galleries from the textile gallery leads to an array of Japanese woodblock prints, the designs of which often feature exquisite renderings of Japanese costume. And entering the galleries from the Breuer building offers a majestic view of the Medicine Master Buddha, beyond whom the entirety of all three galleries unfolds. One can take in at a glance Japanese and Korean screens, at once formally similar but technically and stylistically diverse, as well as a panorama of the many other works on view, including statues, ceramics, lacquerware, textiles, and metalwork.

Along with new space to display woodblock prints, the Japanese galleries will have a dedicated case for ceramics, as will the Korean gallery. These two cases are modeled after those now in the Chinese galleries, and will be set across from each other so that visitors can concurrently experience both traditions. The installation of two new large cases in the Korean gallery enables the museum to continue to display Korean folding screens, but also creates flexible spaces where screens can be combined with works in other formats, such as hanging scroll paintings and album leaves, and even ceramics and textiles. In addition, the cases make it possible to mount special loan exhibitions of works from Korean institutions in the gallery.


Festival Scenes Japan, Edo Period (1615–1868). Six-fold screen; ink, color, and gold on gold-ground paper; 51.1 x 208.9 cm. The Kelvin Smith Collection, given by Mrs. Kelvin Smith 1985.279

New large cases in the Japanese galleries are also flexible. Besides showcasing the museum’s enviable collection of Japanese folding screens, the cases are designed to accommodate paintings in other formats, as well as works in other media. When the cases are used for screens, additional paintings in the hanging scroll format can be hung in dedicated cases on other walls of the galleries. A special feature in the new Japanese galleries is a case that matches the dimensions of a typical tokonoma alcove, the space traditionally used for the display of seasonally appropriate paintings, objects, and floral arrangements in either a home or tearoom. The tokonoma is one of the fundamental spaces for artistic ensembles in Japan, where a person’s artistic achievement is measured not through creating individual works of art, but by the ability to aesthetically arrange works of art created by others, and by the power of that arrangement to elicit inspired commentary from one’s guests.

The inaugural rotation of the Japanese galleries will feature highlights from the Kelvin Smith Collection. On view will be a vibrant group of woodblock prints designed by Utagawa Hiroshige (17971858), a selection of ukiyo-e paintings including two that were on view in the Tokyo and Kyushu National Museums in 2014, and a delightful pair of small-format screens painted with festival scenes. A large painting by literati artist Sugai Baikan (17841844) will occupy the tokonoma. Complementing the prints and paintings from the Smith Collection are a lacquer incense guessing game and an early lacquer writing box, as well as Hizen porcelains from the Edo period (16151868). These include the recently acquired Tea Whisk-Shaped Sake Bottle, which will make its debut in the galleries. Also on view for the first time is the Kasuga Shrine Mandala introduced in this magazine’s previous issue. Landscape, by the 16th-century painter and shogunal collection adviser So¯ami, makes a homecoming appearance after traveling to Japan.  



Cleveland Art, May/June 2016