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The art lover’s guide to Japanese museums

The art lover’s guide to Japanese museums
By Sophie Richard
The Japan Society
2014, 176 pages
ISBN 978-0-9559977-1-6
Review by Jenny White

Sophie Richard’s The art lover’s guide to Japanese museums is a seductive and accessible introduction to Japanese art, from its ancient beginnings to its current shape, and the spaces in which it is displayed. Hitherto, the sheer number of these museums has proved a daunting and somewhat intimidating challenge for the visitor with no prior knowledge of Japanese culture and limited time on their hands. So, where does the art lover begin?

Sophie encourages us to leave our preconceptions at the museum entrance, along with, in some cases, our shoes, as she takes us by the hand on a personal journey to over fifty national, local, public, and occasionally private, art museums and houses. She strikes a fine balance between imparting enough information for us to understand why this work of art or that building is significant, and leaving us with sufficient space to feel our own response. The overseas visitor may not stray far from the main Honshu Island, where most of these museums are based, however visitors to the Isamu Noguchi Garden Museum on the island of Shikoku are rewarded with ‘A place of harmony between the traditional Japanese buildings where [Isamu Noguchi] lived and worked, and the gardens and surrounding mountains’. Interviews enhance our understanding of the aims of this museum: ‘in the curator’s view, the feeling of the place is the most important’.

In Japan, the art museum (bijutsukan) as a place for art is a relatively new post-war concept. Before the economic bubble of the 1980s the home of Japanese art was mainly in the Shōsōin (treasure houses) of shrines and temples. The 1980s saw a national boom with ninety new museums founded in 1988 alone. Museum construction was a symbol of civic pride; huge amounts of public money were allocated, world famous architects were commissioned and museum building provided jobs, competition and moreover, a local identity. ‘Nagi MOCA is a cutting-edge municipal museum founded in 1994 to put the isolated town of Nagi on the map […T]he building itself is a work of art’, Sophie explains. In Europe we saw something similar in the ‘Bilbao effect’, as the northern Spanish industrial town was transformed by architect Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum. Nowadays, Japan is home to over a thousand art museums, with fine examples in every prefecture, ward and metropolis.

In the rush to build these museums, curators and local communities weren’t always consulted: ‘Mayors and prefecture governors are more interested in the size of the building than its content’, complains Arata Isozaki, architect of museums in Japan and around the world. ‘In Europe, a museum is primarily a collection with curators. In Japan, it’s first and foremost a building.’   However, in the last twenty years, Japanese art museums have quietly built up and refined their collections and modified their construction to allow art, people, and buildings to more readily co-exist. Their curatorial displays are now some of the best in the world and a radical shift has taken place; curators have realised it’s not enough to be a scholar – one also has to reach out to the local community – and that public or privately funded, the museum is a public space. The last – and previously elusive – piece of that jigsaw is to extend that accessibility to the overseas visitor.

Sophie’s book is unique in achieving this, with her description of both the collections and their interaction with the museum spaces, which themselves are often significant examples within the oeuvre of international and Japanese architects. The design of the book is clean, uncluttered and subtly colour-coded by area, with museum and thematic indexes, sections on the Imperial family, Mingei folk art and the Tea ceremony, and a useful timeline. Sophie warns us that displays are often rotated with the seasons, so you may not see the ‘signature’ art work of any one museum on your visit but even so, you will be treated instead to a delightful and unexpected discovery in its place. Museums are often ‘destinations’ off the beaten track, and so Sophie’s commentary is balanced with helpful hints on the extent of English spoken in the area, other museums easily overlooked nearby, and museums’ names in Japanese script – the latter a gentle aid to the reader who is beginning to decipher this ‘Empire of Signs’, and useful for showing a local if you are lost along the way!

In her fluid summary ‘Looking at Japanese art’ we learn of the aesthetic significance of the tea ceremony, and that art and craft, unlike in the West, are on the same aesthetic and spiritual continuum. Indeed, this thread runs through Japanese art and architecture from its earliest religious beginnings to the work of contemporary artists such as Hiroshi Sugimoto, Tatsuo Miyajima and architect Jun Aoki, who was keen to reflect the nearby ancient Jomon archaeological site in his contemporary design for the Aomori Museum of Art.

Sophie’s commentary considers the holistic cultural experience of the area as essential to the enjoyment of the visit. For example, a visit to the Hara Museum, built in 1938 by Jin Watanabe as a rare example of Bauhaus influence, includes an account of its unusual architectural heritage. She encourages us to visit the museum’s annex in Shibukawa, built by Arata Isozaki; describes the quality of installation of the work by artists Tabaimo, Yayoi Kusama, and Olafur Eliaasson; and concludes by suggesting a dip in the outdoor hot spring at Ikaho Onsen and a dinner comprising the delicious udon noodles available nearby. Sounds like a perfect day!

This is essentially a book of stories, written in the universal language of art, and one that will do much to increase your understanding and enjoyment of the artworks, the space, and the local environment on your visit to any museum. It will make a significant contribution to the Japanese art world by introducing new audiences to the county’s museums, and the stories that lie within. Furthermore, the intrepid art lover, now emboldened and inspired, can venture north and south of the Japanese archipelago and discover new art, galleries, and museums outside conventional guidebooks. If that art lover is you, do not keep the secret to yourself. Let Sophie know of your discoveries, and the aim of this elegant and fascinating book will have then been achieved.