Tags for: Reeds and Geese
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Reeds and Geese

A brief tour of George Gund III’s bequest of Japanese art
Sinéad Vilbar, Curator of Japanese Art
April 17, 2017
Hanshan and Shide (Kanzan and Jittoku), mid-1500s. Shikibu Terutada (Japanese, active mid-1500s). 2015.592

Presented through the lens of connoisseurship and collecting history, the special exhibition Reeds and Geese, opening this spring, showcases the diverse body of Japanese ink paintings among the collection bequeathed by George Gund III. Visitors can explore three galleries, each emphasizing a different aspect of medieval Japanese art and culture.

The exhibition begins in the south of Japan with works associated with the artist Sesshu Toyo (1420–1506) and the Unkoku school of painters in Yamaguchi Prefecture at the tip of the country’s main island of Honshu. It also visits Dazaifu in the southern island of Kyushu, the place of exile of courtier Sugawara Michizane (845–903), the famed but doomed man of letters whose legend became a popular theme for later Japanese artists. Here paintings and ceramics for tea exemplify artists’ active engagement with Chinese and Korean culture. The second room moves to Kyoto in the west, where visitors encounter the titular painting Reeds and Geese, a modest but deeply important ink painting inscribed by the Chinese Chan (Zen) monk Yishan Yining (1247–1317) between 1314 and 1317. The work’s presentation evokes how participants in a most special tea gathering might have enjoyed it. The third room pays homage to the mighty Kano school of painters who were active across the country, with major practitioners of the house style in both the east and west. One of the exhibition’s themes is the importance of housing and presentation to the appreciation of Japanese art, especially in the context of tea culture. Japanese paintings and ceramics often are exquisitely costumed and adorned in textile and wood, with texts in a variety of forms proclaiming their cultural value.

Reeds and Geese c. 1314–17. Inscription by Yishan Yining (Chinese, 1247–1317). Japan, Kamakura period (1185–1333). Hanging scroll, ink on paper; mounted: 158.5 x 42.2 cm; painting: 80.4 x 32.2 cm. Gift from the Collection of George Gund III, 2015.464

The production of Japanese ink paintings such as those collected by Gund began within the walls of Zen monasteries in Kamakura in the east and Kyoto in the west of the main island of Honshu, and Hakata on the island of Kyushu in the south. It later flourished in these centers and beyond, including Yamaguchi at Honshu’s southwestern tip, Odawara in the island’s east, and even into the north in places such as Fukushima. First introduced to Japan from China as early as the 700s, ink painting truly began with the arrival of Chinese Buddhist monks in the 1200s. Calligraphies, ink figure and landscape paintings, and ink paintings inscribed with poems thrived in the gift-giving culture of Japan’s ruling elites in the 1300s through 1500s. From then onward, tea culture provided a setting where prized calligraphies and paintings could be appreciated along with specially selected works in stoneware and porcelain, or metal and lacquer.

In the 1600s, artists, authenticators, collectors, scholars, and tea masters—none of these categories mutually exclusive—began to categorize and catalogue their cultural heritage. Inspired in part by the inventories and aesthetic judgments recorded in the documents of Buddhist temples and the shogunal collection from the mid-1300s to early 1500s, those engaged in the process of writing Japan’s collecting history and art history left their marks in tangible ways. They created special boxes to house and protect works of art, using ink or sometimes golden lacquer to write titles and artists’ names in beautiful script on the boxes or sometimes on the backs of the mountings of the works themselves. They also wrote and deposited in the boxes short assessments of authenticity. To protect boxes inscribed with titles written by eminent men, textile or paper coverings, and even new outer boxes, were fashioned. Textiles for wrapping a particular work and its boxes, like the silk brocades used in the mountings of calligraphies and paintings, were carefully chosen to convey a particular message about the art inside—much like a tuxedo or a deliberately distressed pair of jeans might do for a person today. The exhibition shows how this practice, which continues into the present, can serve as an important window into a work’s provenance.

While all the paintings in the exhibition are medieval, and the ceramics shown from the Gund collection date up to the 1500s, the tea ceramics on view from the permanent collection extend to the present and include many works not seen by visitors since before the completion of the museum’s Asian galleries. Among the highlights from this group are a large tea storage jar by Nonomura Ninsei (active c. 1646–94), two porcelain tea caddies by Aoki Mokubei (1767–1833), and a tea bowl by Yoshida Yoshihiko (b. 1936).