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Flowers of the Four Seasons: Ten Centuries of Art from the Clark Center for Japanese Art and Culture

August 25, 2010 - December 12, 2010

Saitō Ippo: Flowers of the Four Seasons, late 18th–early 19th century, Japan (detail); ink and colors on gold leaf; six-fold screen; 36 3/4 x 95 1/4 in.; Clark Center for Japanese Art and Culture.

The very best of Japanese art in this country goes on display at the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive in the exhibition Flowers of the Four Seasons: Ten Centuries of Art from the Clark Center for Japanese Art and Culture. Featuring 112 works, the exhibition reflects the broad collecting interests of the Center’s founder Willard G. Clark. His passion for Japanese art and culture has resulted in a collection ranging in date from the late Heian period (794–1185) to the twenty-first century that includes all major areas of artistic endeavor in Japan—screens, scrolls, wood sculptures, textiles, ceramics, and works of bamboo.

Clark studied architecture at UC Berkeley and animal husbandry at UC Davis in the early 1950s. He began his art collection with modestly priced artworks purchased on several visits to Japan from Hawai’i, where he was stationed as a young officer in the United States Navy. After his discharge from the military in 1963, he took charge of the family business, quintupled its size, and embarked on an even more successful venture exporting bull semen overseas. As Clark’s businesses grew, so did the size and scope of his immense art collection. In 1995 he founded the Clark Center, a museum for Japanese art, to better protect these precious works and to make them available for public viewing. From 2002 to 2003, highlights from the collection traveled from the Center in Hanford, California to five cities in Japan, including Tokyo and Osaka, where they were admired by thousands of visitors. Given the Center’s relative remoteness, too few in the United States have had a chance to view this important collection. The BAM/PFA exhibition will change this by presenting to the public the most significant pieces from each of the key areas of the collection.

Occupying three main galleries, this exhibition is one of the largest displays of Japanese art in the museum’s history. The artworks are arranged by themes that elucidate the beauty and special characteristics of Japanese art and culture, as well as the unique nature of this collection. With a great breadth of subjects and media, this multilayered exhibition explores an array of themes, including Buddhist art; the distinctive form of ink painting developed in Japan; the classical literary world; Japanese humor, design, and eccentricity; and contemporary art forms in ceramic and bamboo.

Buddhist images, including paintings and sculpture dating from the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, are among the earliest material in the collection. A fabulous image of Daitoku myō-ō perhaps one of the most commanding and rare sculptures of its type, sets the stage for the other four important Buddhist sculptures in the exhibition. Daitoku myō-ō, one of the Five Great Kings of esoteric Buddhism, is dramatically rendered in wood. With a three-faced fierce countenance and multiple arms, he sits astride a kneeling bull, radiating the commanding power associated with the deity. Other Buddhist imagery, such as a fourteenth-century painting of Daikinten, demonstrates the unique Japanese connections between esoteric Buddhism, Shinto religion, and the Inari cult of the fox.

The introduction of ink painting from China to Japan led to the blossoming of a distinctive Japanese interpretation of the medium. The Clark collection features examples from the Muromachi (1392–1558) and Edo (1603–1868) periods. Chinese subject matter is explored in the painting Lin Hejing Searching for Plum, attributed to Kano Gyokuraku (fl. 1550–1590). Yet the style of the painting, with its background wash and characteristically Japanese angular lines, belongs firmly in the Kano tradition. The artist Kano Tan’yu (1602–1674) pursues idealized beauty, as described in Chinese poetry, in his large single-panel screen depicting the Chinese theme of Eight Views of the Xiao and Xiang.

A revival of Japanese interest in things Chinese occurred in the eighteenth century with the arrival of Nanga, or Southern School paintings. In this school artists like Nakabayahi Chikuto (1776–1853), in his 1829 painting Landscape with Man Seated by a Stream, demonstrate how the Japanese transformed a Chinese tradition into their own distinctive style and interpretation.

Whether depicting a literary scene from an idealized past, the everyday life of ladies of the court, or a vibrant glimpse of the natural world, the uniquely Japanese large format screen commands attention. Screens of gold, decorated with brilliant color, and large screens with subtly applied ink painting, both traditionally served as room dividers. In the exhibition they can be appreciated as freestanding works of art and also understood as elaborate furnishings for large spaces.

Nature is a recurring theme in all of Japanese art. Sensitive, detailed, and almost botanical studies of flowers are a frequent motif, as in Saito Ippo’s lovely screen, Flowers of the Four Seasons from the late Edo period (eighteenth–nineteenth centuries). Numerous other paintings in traditional formats explore nature in exacting detail. Mr. Clark’s involvement in animal husbandry, specifically with bulls, led him to collect wonderful images of these animals, as well as of many other creatures, including birds and monkeys. Often expressing a wry sense of humor, these artworks delight and entertain viewers with their light-hearted renditions of the natural world. Indeed, each piece in the collection, having been personally selected by Mr. Clark, reflects his own refined and exquisite taste.

Yearning for the Classics

The literary classics of China and Japan play an important role in the visual culture of Japan and are often the source of narrative paintings. One of the thematic sections of Flowers of the Four Seasons, “Yearning for the Classics,” explores the depictions of these familiar topics in paintings on hanging scrolls and screens. The large folding-screen format, which allows for the expansive treatment of figures, is especially suited to this genre, as seen in the single six-panel screen illustrating the Chinese-inspired classic Emperor Ming Huang and Yang Guifei, attributed to Kanō Mitsunobu (1565-1608). In this work, the costumes and settings are allowed full expression and a story unfolds with grandeur and drama.

Emperor Ming Huang and Yang Guifei depicts a scene from the “Song of Everlasting Sorrow,” an epic poem written by the Chinese poet Bo Juyi in 806. This tragic story of the emperor and his consort was particularly popular among Kanō school artists of the Momoyama period. Ming Huang (685–762), the sixth-generation emperor of the Tang dynasty (618–907), enjoyed great peace and prosperity in the early years of his reign. But in his later years, the emperor became distracted by his love for Yang Guifei, who embroiled him in the An Lushan Rebellion (755). The poem romanticizes how Yang Guifei was executed in the rebellion by the emperor’s own troops, and how Ming Huang mourned her death and set out in search of her soul. This work had a great impact on Japanese Heian court literature such as the Tale of Genji.

In smaller works, such as Woman of Takayasu by Sakai Hōitsu (1761-1828), the story is expressed subtly and requires literary knowledge of the Heian classic the Tale of Ise. In this painting, a gentleman dressed in the robes and headwear typical of a courtier of the Heian period stands at a lattice window taking a peak at a woman busy with kitchen work. Those who have read the Tale of Ise will recognize this character as Ariwara no Narihira (825-880), whose interest in a woman from Takayasu is stifled when he sees her at domestic chores.

Other images, such as Huts, Mountain, and Snipes by Suzuki Kiitsu (1796-1858), a triptych depicting poems known collectively as “Three Evening Scenes,” refer to traditional and famous waka (thirty-one-syllable) poems. All three poems from a famous Kamakura period anthology end with the same line “Aki no yugure” (In the Autumn Dusk). Kiitsu has taken this topic as the visual focal point for each of his paintings and rendered them in a beautifully atmospheric soft-focus landscape.

Often the literary references in such paintings are remote, even for a Japanese viewer, so it is all the more remarkable that the genre is a significant part of the Clark collection, since many collectors would not have recognized the subtle meaning hidden in the works.

Julia M. White
Senior Curator for Asian Art

Flowers of the Four Seasons: Ten Centuries of Art from the Clark Center for Japanese Art and Culture is organized jointly by the UC Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive and the Clark Center for Japanese Art and Culture, and is co-curated by BAM/PFA Senior Curator for Asian Art Julia M. White and Clark Center Director Andreas Marks.

Public programming for Flowers of the Four Seasons is supported by Bonhams & Butterfields, Bonhams Japanese Art North America, the Metropolitan Center for Far Eastern Art Studies, and the Center for Japanese Studies, UC Berkeley. Additional support provided by SCRIPTUM Fine Japanese Prints, Berkeley; BAM/PFA Endowments for Asian Art; and the BAM/PFA Board of Trustees.

Special thanks to Asia Society Northern California Center, the Consulate General of Japan in San Francisco, the Japan Society of Northern California, and the Society for Asian Art for publicity support.