Discovering Japanese Art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Sabeena Khosla


If you pay even slight attention to the happenings of the art world, and specifically New York City arts, you’ve likely seen photos, posts, and features of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s big-hitter, Through the Looking Glass. Set up in the East Asian galleries, the show juxtaposes modern fashions with a Chinese aesthetic or influence with the ancient artifacts of their permanent collection.


Nestled next to the expansive, multi-floor exhibit ,however, is the Japanese wing housing a long-term show dedicated to the process by which the Met was able to collect art and artifacts from Japan since the 19th century. Being acquainted with the Japanese wing of the museum might instill some disappointment as there are not a whole lot of new additions to see or information to know – however, if you go without the expectation of seeing a new take on their collection, you can have a pleasurable and familiar experience while engaging with a bit of back story. And for those who have yet to visit the area, there are some real treats to absorb.


For centuries Japan had its trade ports closed off so as to preserve and nurture its individual culture. In 1854, however, it opened up to the international stage as modernity was rapidly sweeping through America and Europe. It’s no coincidence then that what would come to soon be the Met’s first department of Eastern art began shortly after this reintroduction to the world, and that with Louis Comfort Tiffany’s collection of items from Japan. However, it’s not abundantly clear which items in the collection Tiffany himself brought.



When entering the exhibit you are greeted front and center by a large barrel drum on a stand. Commissioned by the Japanese government for the 1873 Vienna World Exposition, it’s ornamented with symbols of both war and peace. It has a commanding presence in the room, but also situates the visitor in the center of cases displaying smaller artifacts. Quite charming among these are the netsuke and inrō. The wall label reads, “inrō are airtight medicine containers that are worn hanging from a man’s sash. An ojime bead keeps a inrō closed when it is suspended from a netsuke (sculptural toggle) which rests on the upper edge of a belt and serves as a counterweight.” The inrō look almost like flasks, while next to them are rows of the netsuke figurines. They are tiny, delicately carved sculptures ranging from dragons to fruit. They recall current trends in the Japanese toy market where small, whimsical figures to carry around have gained popularity. And the netsuke are also beautifully crafted and emphasize the level of attention in creating everyday items.


Moving along the visitor has access to also see gorgeous Japanese scrolls and screens, mainly from the Tokugawa period. Wall text indicates that the first official creation of the Department of Far Eastern Art came together in 1915 by Sigisbert Chrétien Bosch Reitz. “He was fascinated by Japanese art…he spent a year learning traditional painting techniques. Bosch Reitz returned to Japan in 1917, and 1925-26. While there, he made several acquisitions, often with the assistance of Yamanaka & Co.” The paintings on these scrolls and screens reflect the method of storytelling in Japan. Whether on a small parchment that depicts a story unfolding using figures, or by using the natural world to express sentiment in a flatter, undulating manner through the emphasis placed on the harmony of negative and positive space, there is always something to contemplate.



This goes for the modern works also present in the space. One of the Met’s major acquisitions, Isamu Noguchi’s Water Stone (1986), is situated next to more beautiful screens. The gentle sound of water over a black stone partially hidden on one side is yet another piece that heightens the meditative qualities of the Japanese wing. It furthermore draws on both traditional and contemporary practices and thereby unites and transitions the space. Not far away from this installation is Hokusai’s highly influential The Great Wave at Kanagawa (1831-33).


The exhibit does display pieces not formerly on display in the Japanese wing, and small facts about the history of collecting Japanese art at this venerable institution. Though if you are a frequent visitor to this sector of the museum, expect to indulge in viewing the familiar, which can on its own provide a new perspective or revelation.



Author Bio:

Sabeena Khosla is a contributing writer at Highbrow Magazine.

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