Virginia Museum Of Fine Arts East Asian Gallery

Posted by: Necci – Oct 17, 2012


Finally, our prestigious Virginia Museum of Fine Arts has opened its East Asian Gallery! Keeping a selection of Hasui Kawase prints in the only room that, until this last month, housed the Japanese art in the building, the VMFA has with its new gallery invited us into the Orient with their traditionally impersonal but warm and delicate embrace.

The 15 shin-hanga pieces that began my journey share a somewhat Western portrayal of these landscapes and village life stills. The shin-hanga distinguishes itself from the more carnal, thus more popular, ukiyo-e with incorporation of Impressionist elements such as light, shading and perspective. This blend of East-West is a sort of birth of a universality that I find so very fascinating, making the largely-homogenised Japan a little more international and human, without sacrificing any of its native identity. Kawase’s use of colour helps create this seemingly rounded and softened departure from traditional Japanese aesthetics. Drawing in sensibilities from his previous work as an artist, block carver, printer and publisher, his amalgamation of various influence and methodology offer a unique snapshot of life in early 20th century Japan.

Another notable characteristic of his work is a duality of purpose, I found. Even depicting something as innocuous as a mother carrying her child on her back on her way to the watermill in “Nenoyama, Bushuu” (1941), the bouncing shadows of the late afternoon let you absorb the piece as the freeze-frame of a typical World War II-era afternoon chore. It allows you into a small village where the child is heard excitedly approaching a drink of water and the mother calls to you, passing along the same dirt path. The same goes for watching the horse feeding quietly outside a residence in “Onohara, Saitama” (1946); is it a still or a tranquil village--everyone inside for lunch about midday.

A solemn offering halfway through the series was “Autumn Farmhouse at Ayashi, Miyagi” (1946). Drawn just 20 miles from where The Great Tohoku Earthquake struck early March, 11 2011, the serenity and lack of persons seen here instigates many a feeling for those both grieving and affected.

Inari-yama (1947) is named for the god of rice and is located in southern Kyoto, known by tourists as the traditional cultural center of Japan. Nearly 770 feet high, the mountain houses one of the largest Shinto (Japan’s native belief system) shrines, nestled at the base. The farmhouse in the foreground seems to look out across the rice fields, which symbolize the bountiful harvest and Inari’s blessings of prosperity, and focuses both its and our own attention on the distant mountains. Though displaced to the background, the fogged cliffs command the great respect and authority well due to a god of rice in a rice-diet country.

Other highlights of the Japanese section include Tosa Mitsuoki’s scroll featuring a flora/fauna combination of chrysanthemum and quails was an idea originally implemented by (Chinese) Ming-era officials. Used as a frequent symbol of autumn in China and Japan alike, the short poem appearing at the top is hardly worth translating more than the scroll’s caption: “describing autumn grasses in the wind.” The extraordinary colour and seasonal imagery are all you really need to get the message across.

Miyagawa Choshun’s “Standing Courtesan” is a splendid example of the deep well of Japanese emotion right below the surface. Picturing a woman of high rank dressed in what we know to be a formal kimono, due to the 4-petal mon (or family crest), it is true that her expressionless elegance is centered in both her stance and her gaze. As a side note, we can also infer that she was on the sexual courtesan side of life and not the strictly entertaining one of the geisha because of her obi being tied in the front, not the back. The more common prostitutes couldn’t afford the time it took to properly re-tie an obi in the back every time they finished with a client.

As the final exhibit, of my route anyway, Kannon the Buddhist god of compassion takes a firm but meditative stance in the center of the temple-esque room, lone lotus flower in hand. He is flanked by bodhissatva Monju riding a lion and in one hand, wielding a sword that protects against ignorance and evil and in the other a sutra that symbolizes the source of his wisdom. Fugen sits atop an elephant as the protector of Buddhist law, and it is speculated that the style of the headdresses that adorn the both of them are of a particularly India-influenced sect of Buddhism. (The author suspects the elephant would also be a key indicator, having a status close to divinity in Indian thought.)

It is with renewed vigor that Japan takes a hold and new stake in the VMFA’s halls, considering what they’ve been through in the last 19 months and how we’ve been a part of that. I reflect intensely on our collective feelings about the events on and after March 11, 2011; I feel that the nuclear element involving the Fukushima reactors should stir deep feelings for Americans given that we (deliberately) applied a nuclear element to our relationship with Japan a little more than 67 years ago. To understand a little more of what’s both behind and ahead of our dark days as nations, VMFA's welcoming wing can provide a nurturing environment for this convalescence.

By Daryl Tankersley