It’s almost spring. A recent trip to the west coast provided a vivid presentiment of the changes to come: cherry trees in full bloom. The pink blossoms reminded me not only of the season but of connections to the Pacific Rim. On a visit to the remarkable Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, we happened upon a kabuki performance the evening we visited, putting Japan squarely front and center in mind. I was already anticipating a trip to see the new MIA show, Arts of Japan: The John C. Weber Collection, and the Asian inspirations of my San Francisco foray sealed the deal.
The show, which features more than 100 pieces from the collection of Dr. John C. Weber, runs the gamut of Japanese art—from hanging scrolls to folding screens to sculpture and textiles. The large, paneled screens and dozens of robes stand out right away. Cherry trees show up, too, in small details and as the main subject of two mid-seventeenth-century screens. “Blossoming Cherry Trees in Yoshino,” with its verdant rendering of a wild cherry tree grove, is a particularly lovely example, capturing the distinctive curve of the cherry tree trunk and evoking a refined world view complete with golden, scalloped-edged clouds drifting across an eternal spring.
At the other extreme—and equally engaging in their way—are the screens depicting famous battles described in Japanese epics as well as shrines and other celebrated spots in Japan. Where the cherry tree grove feels timeless, these renderings of moments in history offer something specific. They tell a compelling story with an astounding level of detail, drawing the viewer in with both their style and substance.
The many examples of robes—the long flowing sleeves of the furisode, the katabira summer robe, and the uchikake wedding robe, to name a few—provide a very different but no less compelling canvas for both symbol and story. A light blue robe depicting night fishing with cormorants suggests a way of life. An apple-green robe decorated with a landscape plays on motifs from classical literature. A bright red robe with wisteria vines and golden waves evokes a highly refined view of the Japanese landscape.
The show also offers an abundance of silk hanging scrolls, including Utagawa Toyaharu’s “brine maidens.” The painting’s flirtatious subjects are hard to resist. The artist founded the Utagawa school, which influenced ukiyo-e painting and printmaking, a movement popularized in the Edo period by the
likes of Hokusai and Hiroshige, and the connection comes through noticeably in the shape of the waves with their curves and curls.
There’s much more to see. But for me, the cherry trees alone make this show worth the price of admission.
Arts of Japan: The John C. Weber Collection runs through May 25 at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts.
And check out our slideshow of exhibit pieces!