Hidden Gold at the Asian Art Museum

han sang-soo korean bridal robe (1)
Hidden Gold is being held to mark the 50th anniversary of the Asian Art Museum. It brings together a diverse selection of pieces from the museum’s collections, each golden in some respect, but covering a wide range, both geographically and chronologically. You will find Japanese screens, Chinese fan paintings, Buddhist artefacts from Cambodia and Mongolia, and much more besides.

I enjoyed the presentation very much and found this a refreshing show to visit – not too large, but still plenty to take in. Unlike the big 2012 exhibit Bronze at the Royal Academy in London, this dwells less on the technical aspects of working with the metal, and more on its symbolic value.

This could explain the pleasing bias towards textiles, where gold is used to glorify the wearer. There are two contrasting but highly decorative robes from China: a Daoist ceremonial robe, with a design that reflects the structure of the cosmos in Daoist thought, and a Qing dynasty Emperor’s dragon robe, emblazoned with nine dragons. There is a contemporary bridal robe from Korea, produced in 2002 by renowned artisan Han Sang-soo (b. 1934), with motifs to emphasize creativity and fruitfulness, including a stylized rainbow mountain and peaches.

Definitely recommended.

Hidden Gold: Mining its Meaning in Asian Art
Asian Art Museum, San Francisco, CA
4 March to 8 May 2016

Above: Han Sang-soo, bridal robe, 2002. Silk embroidered with silk and gold thread. Asian Art Museum. Photo: SF.

Books: Ming The Golden Empire

pic ming golden empire

I do enjoy reading the catalogues for exhibitions that I can’t attend in person, as in my last book review, and this was no exception – a National Museums Scotland catalogue, for an exhibition of Ming art held in Edinburgh over the summer of 2014, opening a few months ahead of the Ming exhibition at the British Museum.

The exhibition was based primarily on loans from Nanjing Museum, with additional objects from National Museums Scotland. Ceramics and painting feature very prominently, but the scope is wide, including bronze, jade, furniture, lacquer, maps, textiles, and even the examination scripts of those seeking to join the ranks of officialdom.

Particular items speak to the cultural output of Nanjing itself – for instance, high-quality textiles such as silk brocade from the Nanjing workshops, or earthenware bricks from the Nanjing City Wall, each stamped with the name of the worker who made it, and his supervisors, in case it turned out substandard.

I liked the clean design of this catalogue and the excellent illustrations – though it was disappointing that a small minority of entries carried no image. Best of all, I found the text lucid and very readable, not just the text-box explanations of key themes (silk, Daoism etc) but also the informative essays fronting each chapter. This was accessible in the best possible way, an enjoyable read for those new and not so new to the field.

Ming: The Golden Empire
Kevin McLoughlin, ed., 2014.
National Museums Scotland, 144pp, £20.

Japanese clocks at the Science Museum

pic 03 table clock

A trip to the Science Museum in London is one of our favourite family outings. However, looking past the steam trains and model tractors, there is at least one gallery that merits inclusion here: the exhibit Measuring Time, which includes a whole display on Japanese clocks.

Under the old Japanese system, periods of daylight and darkness were each divided into six intervals, with day and night hours being of different lengths. In many cases, the clocks are adjustable to reflect that these timings changed with the passing seasons. There is great variety in the timepieces on show: tall pillar clocks, imposing house clocks, smaller table clocks and bracket clocks. I especially enjoyed the decorative metalwork, which in some examples is highly ornate.  The clocks are behind glass, so apologies for the glare on some photos.

Measuring Time
Science Museum, London
Permanent display

Above: Table clock, Japanese or Chinese, 1800s. Science Museum. Photo: STF. This clock has both Arabic numerals and Chinese signs of the zodiac.

Below: Bracket clock, Japanese, 1800s. Science Museum. Photo: STF. This clock has a rotating dial with adjustable indicators.

pic 02 bracket clockBelow: House clock (exhibit 5), Japanese, 1800s. Science Museum. Photo: STF. This clock strikes the last two strokes in quick time, in imitation of the way that Japanese time signals were struck by hand.

pic 05 house clockBelow: Detail of house clock (exhibit 5), showing decorative metalwork. Science Museum. Photo: STF.

pic 05 house clock detailBelow: House clock (exhibit 11), Japanese, 1800s. Science Museum. Photo: STF.

pic 11 house clockBelow: Detail of house clock (exhibit 5), showing decorative metalwork. Science Museum. Photo: STF.

pic 11 house clock detail

Ming blockbuster at the British Museum

pic gold basin
Just opened at the British Museum is a new blockbuster show on the art of China’s Ming dynasty, focused on the years 1400 to 1450. There is something for everyone here: exceptional ceramics, red lacquer boxes, gold jewellery, weapons, robes, handscrolls, printed books, and the list goes on.

The displays are thematic, surveying different contexts for which objects were produced, including the military, culture, religion and trade and diplomacy. This style of presentation is the norm, but I felt in one respect it fell short.

Many items are on loan from China, in particular numerous pieces excavated in 2001 from the Tomb of Prince Zhuang Liang and Lady Wei, in Zhongxiang, Hubei Province. You encounter them in a trickle as you go round the exhibition, arranged according to theme, but I think this could have been a centrepiece of the exhibition, and the impact would have been so much greater – something to capture the imagination of budding archaeologists, along the lines of Tomb Treasures of Han China (2012), at the Fitzwilliam Museum.

That said, I loved what I saw. Particular highlights for me were: two evocative handscrolls from Berlin, Spring Rain at the Xiang River by Xia Chang and Plum Blossom in Moonlight by Chen Lu; an exquisite Buddhist sutra from a private collection, delicately inscribed in gold ink on shiny black paper; a large gilt bronze bodhisattva from the Musée Cernuschi; and a very fine gold basin and ewer from Philadelphia, decorated with engraved dragons and semi-precious stones.

A particular strength of the show is its systematic exploration of China’s interactions with other nations, such as Korea, Japan, south-east Asia, the Timurids in Iran, Central Asia and the Islamic world. One not to be missed – you will definitely learn something new.

Ming: 50 years that changed China
British Museum, London
18 September 2014 to 5 January 2015

Above: Gold basin. Ming dynasty (1368-1644); early 15th century; Xuande period (1426-1435). Gold with engraved decoration of five-clawed dragons; gemstones. Height 7.1cm; breadth 25.9cm. Philadelphia Museum of Art. Image: Philadelphia Museum of Art, at http://www.philamuseum.org/collections/permanent/168506.html?mulR=1396734987|2#

Below: Bodhisattva. Ming Dynasty (1368-1644); mark of Yongle period (1403-1424). Gilt bronze. Height 136cm. Musée Cernuschi. Image: Musée Cernuschi, at http://www.cernuschi.paris.fr/en/collections/bodhisattva-0

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Japanese Buddhist sculpture in Norwich


I managed to incorporate a trip to Norwich into the family vacation, where I was blown away by the collections on display at the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts. The museum is out of town, on the campus of the University of East Anglia (UEA). It benefits from a soaring glass and steel building, designed by Norman Foster in the late 1970s.

The collections are primarily those built up by Robert and Lisa Sainsbury and are presented in one vast space. The objects and pictures are from all over the world and span 5000 years of global history, but presenting them in this way enables the space to unify the artworks, encouraging the viewer to embrace connections and correspondences.

The Buddhist sculpture from Japan is a definite highlight. There are several fine bronzes: figures of Yakushi Nyorai, the Buddha of healing; small figures of Tanjo butsu, the Buddha at birth; the seated figure of Amida, the Buddha of the Western Paradise. Equally impressive are pieces carved in wood: the fragmentary seated figure of Buddha Dainichi Nyorai, the cosmic Buddha; the standing figure of Jizo Bosatsu.  The craftsmanship is brilliant, the expressive qualities of the figures fully realised.

Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts
Norwich, Norfolk
Permanent collections

Above: Standing Yakushi Nyorai, Buddha of Healing. Nara period (710-794). Bronze with traces of gilding. Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts. Photo: STF.

Below: Yakushi Nyorai, Buddha of Healing. Later Heian to early Kamakura period, 12th to 13th c. Bronze. Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts. Photo: STF.

Below: Two figures of Tanjo butsu, the Buddha at Birth. Nara period (710-794). Left figure: gilt bronze. Right figure: bronze. Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts. Photo: STF.


Below: Seated Amida, the Buddha of the Western Paradise. Kamakura period (1185-1333). Gilt bronze. Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts. Photo: STF.


Below: The same seated Amida, viewed from behind so that you see the construction. Photo: STF.


Below: Fragment of seated figure of Buddha Dainichi Nyorai, the Cosmic Buddha. Late Heian period (794-1185), ca. 1000. Wood, traces of lacquer. Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts. Photo: STF.


Below: Standing Jizo Bosatsu. Kamakura period (1185-1333). Wood, pigment, metal, glass. Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts. Photo: STF.


Victorian collectors and Japanese curiosities

pic russell cotes house

I didn’t post here last week, as I was away in Bournemouth for a couple of nights.  It was 18 months since I last visited the Russell-Cotes Museum, and I was eager to see how the displays had evolved.

The bad news is that they have taken down the display of Japanese metalwork.  The very friendly lady on reception explained that they expanded the museum café and needed a separate multi-purpose space for children’s activities and the like.

The good news is that they plan to install display cases on the floor above, to ensure that key pieces remain on show, including the silver elephant incense burner by Nakagawa Yoshizane.  Moreover, other rooms in the house do feature Asian pieces.

The Study houses ceramics from China and Japan. Blue and white china became popular in the late 19th century, following the opening up of Japan to western trade, and the International Exhibitions in London (1862) and Paris (1878).  It was also associated with the Aesthetic Movement.

The Mikado’s Room (in transition on my last visit) is a treasure trove of Japanese curiosities: Buddhist statues, Nō masks, netsuke and more.  The Russell-Cotes travelled to Japan in 1885, amassing 100 packing cases of material.  The display is not well lit and has to be viewed from behind glass, but the sheer proliferation of gleaming objects really captures the mindset of the Victorian collector.

Russell-Cotes Art Gallery & Museum, Bournemouth
Permanent display

Above: Russell-Cotes Art Gallery & Museum, Bournemouth. Photo: STF. Truly, it was this sunny.

Below: Cabinet containing blue and white china, from the Study. Russell-Cotes Art Gallery & Museum. Photo: STF.

pic russell cotes china

Mughal India at the British Library


A deceptively large exhibition, although this should not have surprised me: it covers over 300 years of Mughal rule, from 1526 to 1858.  The 90 minutes I had at my disposal were barely enough to do it justice.  The exhibition design adds a definite sense of drama – cubic wooden frameworks casting interesting shadows, Indian music playing in the background.  It was slightly reminiscent of the British Museum’s show Shah ‘Abbas: The Remaking of Iran (2009), which used Islamic design elements.  Commendable efforts are made to explain the historical framework to the uninitiated: a slick computerized presentation takes you through key battles and shifting boundaries; the initial “Mughal Emperors” section offers a chronological presentation of the emperors via their portraits, the labels rich in little nuggets of murder and intrigue.  Paintings predominate, and demand detailed viewing, but this viewing is gloriously enriched by the inclusion of objects, some owned by the historical figures in question – a set of armour for horse and rider, a crown, a sword, a flywhisk encrusted with jewels.  Alongside are a range of historical documents, public and private, Persian and English, which, thanks to decent labeling, make the historical narrative all the more vivid.  Highly recommended.

Mughal India: Art, Culture and Empire
British Library, London
9 November 2012 to 2 April 2013

Above: Flywhisk handle (morchhal). Mughal, first half of 17th c. Jade, set with gems and lined with silver. Private collection, courtesy of Simon Ray, London. Image at: http://www.bl.uk/whatson/exhibitions/mughalindia/large138080.html.


Drinking vessels from Asia at the British Museum

This might loosely be described as a show about “drinking culture”.  It explores the significance of water, tea and alcohol across Asia, looking at specific types of vessel that evolved in different regions: in South Asia, the lota and the kamandalu; in Southeast Asia, the kendi; in Korea, the kundika; everywhere, the ewer.  It matches vessels with related images – from Japan, a sake cup of lacquered wood by Heisensai Jokyu, shown with a woodblock print by Ichirakutei Eisui of a courtesan holding a sake cup.  This very structured approach had its merits but there was more to enjoy in certain “wildcard” items chosen, I think, to say something about the broader context – from Rajasthan, a glorious painting of the goddess Lakshmi, associated with fertility and good fortune, seated on a lotus flower, with a handsome pair of winged elephants pouring water over her from pitchers held high in their trunks.

Ritual and revelry: the art of drinking in Asia
British Museum, London
27 September 2012 to 6 January 2013

Above: Gaja-Lakshmi. India, Bundi, Rajasthan. Ca. 1780. Gouache on paper. Height 22.9cm; width 27.7cm. British Museum. Image: Trustees of the British Museum, at http://www.britishmuseum.org/research/search_the_collection_database.aspx.

Bronze at the Royal Academy

“Bronze” defies the short review, being huge in every sense: geographically – covering countless regions, some less familiar (Luristan? Ottonian?); chronologically – going back to 3500 BCE (not a misprint, it dawned on me); physically – huge statues abound, and there is too much to see in one visit.  In short, it is unmissable.  Arriving at opening time, I headed straight to Room 9 “Gods” to commune in solitude with a stunning array of large bronzes from India, Tibet, Cambodia, Thailand and Indonesia.  I enjoyed the juxtaposition of a seated figure of Uma from Nepal (11th century) and a French Venus extracting a thorn from her foot (16th century), a teasing multicultural celebration of the nude goddess figure.  Sometimes, though, the emphasis on thematic over geographical or chronological structures became frustrating.  I nearly missed a 6th century Chinese Maitreya altarpiece from the Met because it was filed under “Groups”, not “Gods”.  Some things felt over-represented (Shang dynasty bronzes with intaglio design), others under-represented (Japan scored one “Head” and one “Object”, a 19th century incense burner).  Overall, the curators seemed to be anthologizing rather than telling a compelling story.  But carping aside, this is a show in which to luxuriate.

Royal Academy, London
15 September 2012 to 9 December 2012

Above (upper image): Statue of Uma. Nepal. Early 11th century. Copper alloy with traces of gilt and semi-precious stones. Height 35.56cm; width 27.94cm; depth 25.40cm. Cleveland Museum of Art. Image: Cleveland Museum of Art, at http://www.clevelandart.org/art/departments.aspx.

Above (lower image): State of Venus extracting a thorn from her foot, Ponce Jacquiot. ca. 1560-1570. Bronze. Height 25.3cm; width 23.5cm; depth 12.5cm. Victoria and Albert Museum. Image: Victoria and Albert Museum, at http://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O70342/venus-removing-a-thorn-from-statuette-ponce-jacquiot/.

Below: Altarpiece dedicated to Maitreya. China, late Northern Wei or Eastern Wei dynasty. ca. 525-535. Gilt leaded bronze. Height 59.1cm; width 38.1cm; depth 19.1 cm. Metropolitan Museum of Art. Image: Metropolitan Museum of Art, at http://www.metmuseum.org/collections/search-the-collections.

Japanese metalwork in Bournemouth

Bournemouth is home to the Russell-Cotes Art Gallery & Museum, a beautiful house containing the collections of Sir Merton and Lady Russell-Cotes, late Victorians who travelled the world, amassing Japanese and other artefacts.  Attached to the historic house is a more modern gallery showing nearly a hundred items of Japanese metalwork, mainly 19th century, under the banner “Well Hammered: The Art of Japanese Metalwork”.  Especially stunning are two works by the Komai house of Kyoto, one an iron dish with a scene from a No play, the other an iron plaque with a battle scene from the Mongol invasions.  Both pieces are lavishly decorated in relief, using gold, silver, copper and different inlay techniques.  Japanophiles should note that the so-called Mikado’s Room in the historic house is likewise crammed with Japanese artefacts, but since the museum is in the process of redoing the display, a return visit is a must.

Well Hammered: The Art of Japanese Metalwork
Russell-Cotes Art Gallery & Museum, Bournemouth
Permanent display

Above: Dish (detail). Komai of Kyoto. Meiji period (1868-1912). 1880-1890. Lobed iron dish, decorated with gold, silver, copper, shibuichi (copper-silver alloy) and shakudo (copper-gold alloy) inlays. Russell-Cotes Art Gallery & Museum. Image: Russell-Cotes Art Gallery & Museum, by HM Photographic, at http://www.rupertharris.com/final/int_precious_objects/examples/example3/example3.php