Sakai Hoitsu's red maple fills one side of a pair of folding screens. It's one of the masterpieces included in “The Poetry of Nature.” Photo: Adel Gorgy
BY MARY GREGORY
The word museum comes from the ancient Greeks. Mouseion was a house of the muses. Sometimes, the museum itself becomes the muse.
Temper a hot summer day in a cool, shaded gallery at The Met Fifth Avenue filled with delightful reflections of nature. In a time of record heat, blazing wildfires and torrential storms, it’s a subject we all need think more about.
The Arts of Japan galleries are filled with poetry, art, moonrises, birds in flight, grazing deer and exquisite calligraphy. “The Poetry of Nature: Edo Paintings from the Fishbein-Bender Collection” presents a distant time and place, but through a local connection. The exhibition features some 40 paintings from the collection of New Yorkers, Dr. Estelle P. Bender and her late husband, T. Richard Fishbein. Most have never been publicly displayed before, and most are promised gifts to the museum. They’re joined by earlier works from The Met’s collections as well as contemporary ceramics and photography, to give a sense of tori-awase, or connoisseurial arrangement, a traditional Japanese practice to heighten awareness and let objects communicate not just with the viewer, but with one another as well.
The exhibition fills several galleries with works that span from the 10th to the 21st centuries, though the focus is on the Edo period. From 1615 to 1868 Japanese artists came in contact with China and the West, finding new ways of seeing and creating. The Fishbein-Bender collection features those who broke from tradition. There’s a rare scroll by a 17th century female artist, Kiyohara Yukinobu. Her painting of waxwings, a small sparrow-like bird, may hold a secret message. The affectionate birds symbolized marital harmony; Yukinobu and her husband were both artists.
Harmony is a key theme of the exhibition. Poetry and painting are married, too, in many of the works. Verses tumble down the sides of scrolls; gorgeous lines of ink convey gorgeous lines of poetry. A delicately painted glazed tile, where calligraphy and the currents in a river mimic each other’s movements, contains a message from a 10th century poet: “Taking a tally of ripples on the face of the water, glimmering in the moonlight, we know that this night, tonight, the peak of autumn has arrived.” The texts of all poems incorporated into artworks are translated, making for a rich experience.
“Hollyhocks and Prince’s-Feather Flowers” a small scroll painted by Sakai Ōho (1808–1841), looks like a tidy corner of someone’s backyard garden. In reality, it’s a masterpiece of positive/negative space, minimalist line and pure color. With the left side empty, balanced by only a few dark green leaves, a smattering of red spots, white blossoms and a tiny orange butterfly, it’s a yin-yang of nostalgia and transcendence. Nature and artistic nurture join to create a poetic perfection.
A pair of towering folding six-panel screens presents flowering cherry and red-leafed maple trees. Their gnarled trunks have seen many years, yet their blossoms and leaves speak of rebirth. It’s an expression of wisdom and innocence, a moment and eternity, joined symbolically by Sakai Hōitsu, the artist.
Myriad myna birds, fat frogs, gangly grasshoppers, swirling snails, plumed phoenix and plump monks are among the charming creatures depicted in paintings, sculptures, woodblock prints, embroidered robes, ceramics and basketry. Perhaps the most delightful is a pair of scrolls depicting three cranes. Posed against a soft, featureless background, they stand, two on one scroll, the other alone. Nagasawa Rosetsu painted them in the 1780s. It’s as though the artist wanted to paint every crane, capture every nuance, show the very essence of them. In one panel, two birds are depicted, one facing sideways, tall and elegant, the other with its back to the viewer. On the second panel, the bird gazes at the viewer head-on. The round body tapers to a comical nub of a head, all skinny neck and bulging eyes. It’s impossible not to smile, not to fall in love with her.
And that’s the point of the show — to get us to cherish the beauty in nature. Be inspired by a muse. Consider works by artists who understood that their survival depended on harmony with nature. Because, despite air conditioning, pavement and the wonders of plumbing and mass transit, ours does, too.