50. My Partly-Botched Nanga Exhibition

50. My Partly-Botched Nanga Exhibition


My 1972 exhibition "Scholar-Painters of Japan: The Nanga School" and its catalog are recognized as having introduced this school of Japanese painting to audiences outside Japan. It was shown at Asia House Gallery in New York and at the University Art Museum in Berkeley. Untold and largely forgotten is the story of how badly this exhibition went wrong, how it was rescued by the efforts of a feisty collector of Japanese art, Mary Burke, and how the selection of paintings for the exhibition ended up quite different from what I had originally hoped for.


I "discovered" Nanga painting for myself, and resolved that a U.S. exhibition of it had to be organized, as early as 1953, when the great "Exhibition of Japanese Painting and Sculpture," sent by the government of Japan, came to the Met in New York while I was a fellowship student there. (For the remarkable story behind this exhibition, see Warren I. Cohen, East Asian Art and American Culture, pp., 139-142. Cohen's book is important and entertaining reading for anyone seriously concerned with East Asian art.) I spent a lot of time with the exhibition and the Japanese scholar-curators who accompanied it, headed by Masao Ishizawa, who would later be director of the Yamato Bunkakan near Nara. I was especially bowled over by the Nanga paintings in it—the one that sticks in my memory is the "Mists and Clouds" album by Uragami Gyokudô (Umezawa Collection)—but there were great works of Taiga, Buson, and others also in the show. These were completely new to me, and opened a world that would absorb a lot of my energies in the years that followed, especially during the years when China was not open to Americans and I needed research projects to justify spending so much time in Japan.


During those long stays in Japan I came to know the leading specialists in Nanga, along with, of course, the specialists in Chinese painting, which continued to be my main concern. Among Nanga scholars, the most urbane and likeable was Suzuki Susumu. Married to a rich (and very pleasant) woman, he lived in Denenchôfu, an upper-class district of Tokyo, and never seemed in need of money; he also profited from turning out a lot of done-to-order writing for publishers. His scholarly achievements were substantial, but never seemed to make heavy demands on him, at least visibly. He knew everybody, could introduce you to any collector, could arrange anything—at least in promises. And he loved eating and drinking: an evening that started out as a meeting with a serious purpose would end up as an excellent dinner followed by drinking at his favorite bars. For a time in the 1960s-70s he held a position in the Bunkachô, the Agency for the Protection of Cultural Properties that among other things oversaw the sending abroad of important Japanese art works in exhibitions.


Naive as I was, I consulted with Suzuki Susumu about organizing a great Nanga exhibition for the U.S.—he seemed the ideal collaborator in this—and, when I was authorized to begin the planning by Asia House Gallery in New York, which was to take the show and publish the catalog, I prepared with him a "dream list" of paintings I wanted to include in it. The exhibition would be a departure from standard or traditional Japanese accounts of Nanga, recognizing artists and paintings outside the Japanese canon, the ones that were always reproduced and discussed (called by the Japanese daihyôsaku, "representative works.") Moving around the collectors and dealers, I had seen paintings that seemed more exciting than those, and arrived at judgments not sanctified by that ideal accord that the Japanese seem always to be striving for. Suzuki assured me that there would be no trouble getting these, he knew the collectors and curators, and so forth. Now, on to dinner and visits to our favorite bars.


Time passed, and Gordon Washburn, Director of Asia House Gallery, began to press me about how the plans for the exhibition were going. I could only pass on to him the messages I was getting from Suzuki: all going fine, loans 90% assured, etc. Then, on a trip to Japan, I went in to see Kurata Bunsaku, whom I knew (he had come with the 1954 exhibition, and later was Director of the Nara National Museum) and who was now head of the Art Section of the Bunkachô, under whom Suzuki was in principle working. Kurata acted completely surprised, talked as though this was the first he had heard of the exhibition, told me flatly that Suzuki had no standing in matters such as foreign exhibitions, and that he wasn't going to support our show. Back to square one.


This was just when Jan Fontein and Money Hickman were putting together their great Zen Painting and Calligraphy exhibition for the Boston M.F.A., and they had followed all the correct procedures. as I had not; Jan was more than a little gloating about their success and my failure. I deserved that, of course. Gordon Washburn was of no help; himself suave and accomodating, good qualities for his job, he was not a fighter. Our saviour was unexpected: none other than Mary Burke, the New York collector. I had gotten to know her well when I spent my year in New York and her husband Jackson was still alive—I went through their collection with them, and was responsible for their buying a wonderful Taiga screen of the "Lan-t'ing Gathering," which we included in the show (the only painting from a U.S. collection) because it had been chosen for inclusion before they bought it. Mary was in Japan after our turn-down, and took it upon herself to visit Kurata and plead our case. She said afterwards that she virtually had to crawl across the floor in front of him. But she was willing to do that, and Kurata relented and said he would allow the exhibition to go forward.


We were not, however, permitted to keep our original selection; Kurata and others made a new list, with some of the pieces we had asked for, but quite a few that were new and not especially welcome. (A list of our original selection is appended to the text of a lecture I gave at Asian House Gallery while the exhibition was there, see CLP 151A on my website. This is a PDF download, and may be hard to read.) We lost the great Buson horizontal painting "Snowy Night Over Kyoto," getting instead the much less interesting "Mr. Fuji" (#27) and "Bare Peaks at Mt. Gabi (O-mei)" #28, which Junkichi Mayuyama had recently acquired. And they put in Buson's "En no Gyôja" picture (#24) which represented, for me, Buson at his worst as a figure painter. Also the 1758 "Landscape" (#20), another I would rather have left out. The great pair of paintings of crows was replaced by a single crow (#21), far less interesting. The duller Taiga was well represented (#9, from "Sights of Kyoto," and #11, "Six Distances") along with so-so works by Nankai and Kien. And so forth—what would have been a knockout exhibition turned into what was only a good one. And I was faced with the task of writing my text around pictures that in many cases didn't represent the individual artists, or Nanga more generally, very well.


I will append another Suzuki Susumu story to conclude. His intentions were always good, I think, but he was too occupied with other, more interesting things to always carry them through. When I spent a sabbatical year in Japan (1975-6, if I remember right) working on the early Nanga master Sakaki Hyakusen (my study of him was published in three long parts in Japanese, translated by Yoko Woodson, in Bijutsu-shi, later in English translation, see my Biblio. for 1976 and after), I learned that Hyakusen had done the earliest set of fusuma-e, sliding-door pictures, in Nanga styles, and that these were in an old house at Tônomine, a mountaintop village located above a stop on a branch of the Kyoto-Osaka electric train (the same branch line one takes to get to the Murôji, my favorite temple in Japan). Yoshizawa Chû had published these in Kokka (#825). The house was occupied by an old Mr. Suhara, for whose ancestors Hyakusen had painted them. Suzuki Susumu told me that they were not easy to see, but he could arrange it: I should be patient. Months passed, and Suzuki kept putting it off, and my year was nearing its close. Finally, I got Suhara's phone number and simply phoned him, explaining who I was and that I wanted to see the fusuma-e in his house. He responded enthusiastically: Sure, come ahead, any time. So I made the trip, staying in a nearby inn, and spent a lot of time seeing and photographing the paintings. Mr. Suhara was indeed old and eccentric, but entertaining; asked how he had felt growing up with these paintings, he said he had disliked them because they were so dark and dull, and wished his parents would replace them with newer and brighter ones. He also related his adventures in the U.S. on a trip he made as a forestry association official, and his frustration that Americans didn't understand his English: he would say "orenji jyûsu" (orange juice) or "miruku" (milk) and get blank looks. Told that his pronunciation was faulty, he asked how he should have pronounced the words, and practiced them: "myuk! myuk!" instead of "miruku." Prowling around freely in his house, I discovered a small room behind the genkan, entry-way, that Yoshizawa had somehow missed, with pictures of bamboo in snow; when I published my article including details of these, he was reportedly quite embarrassed and made a quick trip to Tônomine to see them.

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