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New MFAH exhibit Unrivaled Splendor highlights the magic of Japanese art

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13A, MFAH, Unrivalled Splendor, Japanese art, June 2012, Folding Screene with Equestrian Archery Drill
Folding scene with equestrian archery drill, from "Unrivaled Splendor" Photo by Paul Hester/Hester + Hardaway Photographers
18, MFAH, Unrivalled Splendor, Japanese art, June 2012, Western Hunter
Western hunter from "Unrivaled Splendor" Photo by Paul Hester/Hester + Hardaway Photographers
13A, MFAH, Unrivalled Splendor, Japanese art, June 2012, Folding Screene with Equestrian Archery Drill
18, MFAH, Unrivalled Splendor, Japanese art, June 2012, Western Hunter

While visiting Houston this weekend, I had the amazing opportunity to preview Unrivaled Splendorthe show of Japanese art from the collection of Kimiko and John Powers at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. As a modest collector and fan of Japanese art I try to see most public collections of Japanese art in the United States. The collection and its presentation at MFAH is truly extraordinary.

MFAH curator of Ancient to Contemporary Asian Art Christine Starkman is correct to say the simultaneous showing of so many masterpieces is unheard of. Objects such as the screens and scrolls are very sensitive to light — many are in good condition 400 years or more after being painted because their owners would only bring them out for a day every few years.

 Objects such as the screens and scrolls are very light sensitive — many are in good condition 400 years or more after being painted because their owners would only bring them out for a day every few years. 

Japanese painting is in many ways different than the European and American art we see in museums. Yes, birds look like birds, landscapes look like landscapes. But in Western art many of the great masterpieces are oil on canvas or wood panel. In Japanese art the paintings are primarily on rice paper or sometimes silk and are essentially ink brush or watercolor drawings.

In the West, great drawings such as those by Rembrandt are generally the size of a piece of notebook paper. Many of the screens in the exhibit are gigantic — nearly 5-feet tall by 12-feet wide.

Working on paper, the Japanese artist has to be perfect. In Western art painted with oils, if you make a mistake or want to revise your painting, you scrape off what you don't like and paint over it. In Japanese art, any missstep needs to be incorporated into the painting or the artist has to discard it and start over. Many of the greatest masters took decades to reach this level of skill.  

The big folding screens generally have six panels. Each panel is painted one at a time and then assembled onto the framework of the screen. Often screens were painted as pairs, so you would open both screens for a special event and sit on the floor enveloped in a scene 24 feet long.

A large difference between European and Japanese art is that on the screens and scrolls a large fraction of the surface is blank. In most European paintings (excepting some portraits) the entire surface is covered with paint (well, at least until the 20th century).

While the empty space is blank, if you observe carefully it helps shape the objects and scene you see and the quiet of these passages help create the zen feeling often associated with Japanese art.

In Japanese art, any missstep needs to be incorporated into the painting or the artist has to disc ard it and start over. Many of the greatest masters took decades to reach this level of skill.

At one entrance to the show, the curator has installed a set of eight scrolls in ink wash by Kano Tan'yu of tigers and a dragon, a subject often repeated in Asian art. On the four scrolls for the dragon, its head and some claws plunge down into the screen over a seascape gently suggested with breaking waves. But most of the scrolls are largely empty — you have to imagine what the rest of the dragon is like. 

At the other entrance the curator has placed a single screen by Maruyama Okyo showing a waterfall and rapids. The ground, rocks and vegetation are painted in broad darker strokes of ink, while the waterfall plunging over the rocks and the resultant pool of rapids is largely blank with the movement of the water suggested by very thin lines.

Standing before it, as simply as it is painted, I imagined I could hear the roar of the water. That is the magic of Japenese art.

Japanese art collector Linwood Vincent lives in Washington, D.C.

'Unrivaled Splendor' is on display at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston through Sept. 23.

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