MFA Celebrates Japanese Culture with New Exhibits

Spring has finally arrived at the Museum of Fine Arts. To celebrate the 125th anniversary of the founding of the museum’s Department of Asian Art, the MFA has planned a tribute to Japanese culture with an extensive, season-long event referred to as “Japanese Spring.” On April 5, two exhibits will open to kick off the program: one an ambitious retrospective of the iconic nineteenth-century Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai, the other, titled “In the Wake,” a highly selective exploration of artistic responses to the three-part Japanese disaster of 3/11.

The MFA has been committed to perpetuating a dialogue surrounding the interaction between Asian and American culture since 1890, when it became the first museum in America to establish a department dedicated solely to the preservation and study of Japanese art.“We really love the fact that our museum is so critical a voice in Japan-U.S. art dialogue,” says Anne Nishimura Morse, the museum’s senior curator of Japanese art. One way that the MFA will moderate this conversation in the coming months is by presenting their collection of works by Hokusai, which is largely unmatched in its variety of media, scope of his career, and largesse.

Because of this, the museum did not seek to procure works from other institutions for the showcase. “The point of this exhibit is very much to brag about what the MFA owns,” says Sarah Thompson, the curator of the exhibition. “We are enormously proud of the fact that we are the only museum in the world that could do a Hokusai retrospective of this scope entirely based on our own collection. So we deliberately did not ask for loans.”

The “Hokusai” exhibition features over 230 pieces by the artist and explores seven major themes that imbue his oeuvre—delineated by Thompson herself—in a range of media from paintings to paper lanterns to his most famous woodblock prints, the latter of which were the focus of the tour given by Thompson to the press. The exhibit features Hokusai’s best-known print series, titled “Thirty-Six Views of Mt. Fuji,” along with other renowned works. These include: “Phoenix,” an ink drawing that spans an eight-paneled folding screen; his so-called “Large Flowers” series; and a delicate, decorated fabric that would have served the same purpose as gift-wrap, featuring Hokusai’s imagined rendition of a lion.

According to Thompson, this rendering of a lion is interesting not only because of its unique medium but also because it evidences Hokusai’s creativity. “Since there weren’t any lions in Japan, he just made up what it might look like,” she says. In this vein, Thompson created a separate theme in the exhibition whose function is to pay homage to Hokusai’s creativity as well as showcase the diversity and depth of the museum’s collection. “There is one section that I called ‘Ingenious Designs,’ and that is precisely the oddball things,” she says. “It’s a very assorted group of things, and yet all of them show Hokusai being very clever and not just as a visual artist working in two dimensions.”

Meanwhile, an exhibition that explores a vastly different aspect of Japanese culture is opening in a nearby wing of the museum: “In the Wake” is as different in structure and size from “Hokusai” as it is in subject matter. The exhibition, which culls 100 digital reactions to the “Triple Disaster” of 3/11—the earthquake, tsunami, and subsequent nuclear disaster at Fukushima on March 11, 2011—features the works of 17 artists, most of whom hail from Japan. According to Morse, who co-curated “In the Wake” with Anne Havinga, senior curator of photographs, and Japanese art research fellow Tomoko Nagakura, the exhibit aims to enrich the global understanding of Japanese art by presenting varied responses to its culture.

By simultaneously opening “Hokusai” and “In the Wake,” the MFA will provide visitors with a more holistic impression of the country than they would from a single exhibit. “Our department has always been really committed to telling the whole story of Japanese art,” Morse says. “Hokusai is probably one of the most well-known figures in Japanese art, but we also want to show that our museum is not just stuck in one period…. That is one of the reasons we’re doing ‘In the Wake.’”

Through its “Japanese Spring” program, the MFA attempts to create a sampling of Japanese culture that represents diverse histories and experiences. “You can go to collections and have the great art, but if it doesn’t have a community that’s built around it or raises certain issue or gets people to look closer [at art], like an artist like Hokusai, then it’s—to me—not as much fun,” Morse says.

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