Art review: ‘Zen, Tea and Chinese Art in Medieval Japan’ at Freer Gallery

A lacquered, wooden Japanese incense container from the 16th century. (Courtesy Freer Gallery of Art)

A lacquered, wooden Japanese incense container from the 16th century. (Courtesy Freer Gallery of Art)

A lacquered, wooden Japanese incense container from the 16th century. (Courtesy Freer Gallery of Art)

Washington Post
By Mark Jenkins December 31, 2014
In 13th-century Japan, the most esteemed poems, ceramics and paintings had something fundamental in common: They were all Chinese. A few hundred years later, China’s influence was still strong, but the traditional arts had developed a distinctive Japanese character.

That’s the history recounted by the 32 objects in “Zen, Tea and Chinese Art in Medieval Japan” at the Freer Gallery of Art. It’s hard to attribute changing tastes and growing independence to just a few causes, but the exhibition focuses on two mentioned in its title — Zen and tea — and one that isn’t — the rise of the shoguns.

Those rulers, who reduced the country’s emperors to figureheads, were military men. But this show doesn’t feature swords, armor or scroll paintings of epic battles. The fiercest thing on display is a portrait of a regal-looking hawk, a bird admired by Japan’s feudal lords (“daimyo”) and the samurai who served them.

Those warriors were as pitiless as any raptor, but they also aspired to the refinement of Chinese scholars. Daimyo and samurai wrote poetry and made ink paintings, and they supported others who pursued such arts. They also embraced Zen, a form of Buddhism that emphasizes individual practice and personal discipline over immutable ritual and centralized authority.

Both Buddhism and written language had arrived in Japan from China (via Korea) by the sixth century. But Zen (known as “Chan” in China, where it developed) wasn’t imported for another 600 years or so. With it came tea, whose drinking gradually developed into a specifically Japanese set of rituals known as “chanoyu” or “chado.” (One D.C. teashop chain translates this as “Teaism.”)

Tradition has it that Chan was brought to China by Bodhidharma, a monk from India or central Asia. This show includes a Japanese painting, likely a copy of a Chinese original, in which the Zen master crosses the Yangzi River. He never got to Japan, but his ideas did.

Where the art of other Buddhist sects often depicted gods and demons, Zen preferred the humble and the human. Its favored paintings portrayed Zen masters, sometimes with their disciples, in pictures designed to inspire their pupils. Obtaining wisdom was shown to happen in the everyday world and during ordinary activities. A zen teacher known as Master Clam, portrayed here in a 13th-century Chinese painting, supposedly achieved enlightenment while eating a shrimp, a food generally not considered acceptable by vegetarian Buddhist monks.

As placed in this exhibition, the painting also teaches another lesson: It’s next to a 15th-century one executed in a similar style, but by a Japanese artist. There are nearly a dozen Japanese landscapes in this array, nearly all in the Chinese mode. The artists didn’t simply use imported methods to picture their own country; they depicted the mountains and rivers of China, a country most of them had never seen. Like Master Clam with the shrimp, they swallowed Chinese painting whole.

Ultimately, this devotion served Chinese art well. Works from some periods in China’s turbulent history survived better in Japanese monasteries, museums and private collections than in their homeland, says Ann Yonemura, the Freer’s senior associate curator of Japanese art. The Freer, which mounts its exhibitions entirely from its own collection, is another significant repository of Chinese art and ceramics.

But “Zen, Tea and Chinese Art in Medieval Japan” is not about China. Although the majority of the ceramic objects in the show are Chinese, they point toward future Japanese variations. Included here are a tea bowl from each country, the Japanese one a few centuries newer and a few swallows bigger.

The transitions are equally subtle in the paintings, none of which boldly announce themselves as Japanese. Yet such pictures as “White Heron on a Snowy Willow,” in which bird and snow are simply blank paper, outlined in gray ink wash, and “Willows and Birds” show the beginnings of a new style.

These two paintings, made between the mid-15th and the early- 16th centuries, are more graceful and less angular than their Chinese models. Their use of off- center framing and dramatic foregrounding seems to anticipate, impossibly, photography. Such techniques later flowered in multi­color Japanese woodblock prints and influenced artists around the world. Though rooted in China, the exhibition’s later paintings appear as Japanese as, well, a beautifully proportioned tea bowl.

Jenkins is a freelance writer.

Zen, Tea and Chinese Art in Medieval Japan
Through June 14 at the Freer Gallery of Art, Jefferson Drive at 12th Street SW (Metro: Smithsonian). 202-633-1000. http://www.asia.si.edu. Open daily 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Free.

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