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MFA exhibit tours Japan, will not be seen in Boston

“Dragon and Clouds” and other works are drawing crowds.

Museum of Fine Arts

“Dragon and Clouds” and other works are drawing crowds.

FUKUOKA, Japan — It is news to make a Bostonian proud: the city’s great Museum of Fine Arts sends its incomparable collection of Japanese masterpieces on a 15-month tour of Japan. The works are rapturously received by more than a million people in four venues.

The only bad part? The people of Boston have been shut out of the party.

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The masterpieces — among them a 1,300-year-old Buddhist painting, dozens of rare paintings on folding screens, and more than 50 yards of Japanese scroll paintings that are regarded as national treasures in Japan — were on view at the
Kyushu National Museum, a modern, gleaming building situated in verdant hills outside Fukuoka,through March 17. They are now moving to Osaka, where the show opens April 2.

The traveling exhibit, drawn from what is widely recognized as the greatest collection of Japanese art outside Japan, has reminded the Japanese — no doubt to the consternation of some — that many of their most historically important artworks ended up in Boston.

It has also prompted the question of why, although Boston played an essential role in saving many of Japan’s art treasures when they were in danger of destruction in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the MFA has chosen not to share this amazing story with Boston audiences by bringing the show back here.

Museum of Fine Arts

At the Tokyo National Museum, visitors waited to see works.

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The reason it did not, an MFA spokeswoman told the Globe last year, is “because these Japanese masterpieces have been presented on a rotating basis in our galleries.” In reality, however, limited display space and the light sensitivity of the works mean that this summer the MFA will return the vast majority of the treasures to storage rather than trumpet their homecoming.

In January, the MFA did launch a new display of Japanese art in its permanent collection galleries, sensitively installed by Anne Nishimura Morse, the MFA’s curator of Japanese art. But that display represents just a tiny sliver of what the MFA owns — and, obviously, it contains none of the masterpieces currently touring Japan.

‘Some people may say that it’s a shame we sold all these works that are now national treasures.’

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Japanese art lovers crowded the traveling “Japanese Masterpieces” exhibit at the Kyushu National Museum on a Wednesday in mid-March, the day after official attendance figures across the show’s first three venues hit the one million mark, and attendances in Kyushu reached 200,000.

They stood in orderly lines, waiting to get close to detailed, duskily lit works such as the riveting “Night Attack on the Sanjo Palace” from the “Illustrated Scrolls of the Events of the Heiji Era.”

The entrance to the exhibit itself was festooned with reproductions of MFA works and a blown-up photograph of the MFA’s Huntington Avenue facade. The gift shop immediately outside was groaning with MFA paraphernalia, including pricey reproductions of works in the exhibition.

Preparations for the show began more than 15 years ago, when teams of Japanese scholars came to the MFA and worked with MFA curators, confirming the importance of many works and uncovering other, previously neglected pieces. A huge conservation project began, geared toward the current show.

Before this project, according to MFA deputy director Katie Getchell, “We didn’t have enough Japanese pieces in good enough condition to be rotated into the permanent collection galleries. There weren’t enough screens, for instance, when we wanted [to display] them.”

The current show, organized in collaboration with the Tokyo National Museum, “helped fund the conservation work that allows us to rotate the works back into the collection,” said Getchell.

She added that such rotations were part of the MFA’s larger strategy of focusing more attention on the permanent collection galleries, rather than on one-off shows in the Ann and Graham Gund Gallery for temporary exhibitions. (That said, a show of Japanese Samurai armor, borrowed from the Ann and Gabriel Barbier-Mueller Collection in Texas, will open in the Gund Gallery on April 14.)

The “Japanese Masterpieces” show has been a great opportunity for the MFA to let people all over Japan know of its holdings (which number more than 100,000 objects), and to advertise Boston itself.

But the show has also allowed the MFA and Japan to commemorate a long-ago ­romance, which saw a small number of New Englanders do Japanese culture the great honor of treasuring and preserving it at a time when Japan itself was in turmoil.

“People in Japan a century ago were eating hand-to-mouth,” said Morizane Kumiko, a curator at the Kyushu National Museum. “Appreciation of culture was very low.”

In the second half of the 19th century, when Japan was opened to foreign visitors, “no region of the United States was more enamored of Japan than New England,” wrote Christopher Benfey in his acclaimed account of the relationship, “The Great Wave: Gilded Age Misfits, Japanese Eccentrics, and the Opening of Japan.”

Boston’s love affair with “Old Japan” — which Herman Melville had imagined in “Moby Dick” as “those insulated, immemorial, unalterable” islands — was made possible by the opening up of Japan to the West in 1854, under pressure by US Commodore Matthew Perry and his fleet of ships anchored offshore.

During the next 50 years, as the United States was struggling with the uncertainties of the Civil War’s aftermath, members of Boston’s elite upper class sought antidotes to the coarsening effects of rampant commercial expansion. These well-traveled intellectuals yearned for simpler, purer modes of living, and for more noble spiritual traditions.

They found what they were looking for in Japan.

Thanks in great part to an influential series of lectures at Boston’s Lowell Institute by ­Edward Morse — who came to Japan to look at shells and ended up becoming a world authority on Japanese architecture, archery, and ceramics — Japanese aesthetics took on outsized importance in Boston’s cultural circles in the 1880s and ’90s.

Morse and his many followers felt that Japan’s frantic attempts at modernizing along Western lines signaled the imminent end of its ancient, inherited culture: “Old Japan.”

“The idea that took root in [Morse’s] imagination, and which he conveyed to other like-minded and well-endowed Bostonians,” wrote Benfey, “was that if the Japanese did not intend to preserve Old Japan, then someone else would have to do it. Why not the museums of Boston and environs — specifically the Museum of Fine Arts and the Peabody Academy of Salem [now the Peabody Essex Museum]?”

This idea was the foundation for the MFA’s stunning Japanese collection. It was built up through the efforts of an extraordinarily rich cast of characters, above all Morse; the Japanese author of “The Book of Tea” Kakuzo Okakura; the philosopher Ernest Fenellosa; the physician, yachtsman, and philanthropist Charles Weld; and the physician William Sturgis Bigelow. (The current touring show marks the 100th anniversary of Bigelow’s gift of his collection to the MFA.)

But, as Benfey’s book makes clear, New England’s love affair with Japan also drew together other key figures of American arts and letters, from Melville to Gilded Age figures such as the historian Henry Adams, the collector and patron Isabella Stewart Gardner, and the artist and decorator John LaFarge.

Of course, in Japan, the disappearance of so many great works of art from Japanese shores has the potential to be a sensitive issue. This may be why the show’s Japanese venues have tended to underplay the roles of Okakura and his New England friends.

Okakura, a brilliant, complex figure who acted as an interpreter for Fenellosa on his trips to Japan, went on to hold important cultural posts in his native country and in Boston. In Japan, he helped set up the Tokyo School of Fine Arts and the Japan Art Institute.

But his loyalties were evidently divided. In his capacity as adviser to the MFA, and later the head of Asian art there, he helped Fenellosa and Bigelow take huge numbers of important artworks from Japan to Boston at very low prices.

Should he have done more to keep these works in Japan, rather than facilitate their wholesale removal?

“I really want to ask him about that myself!” said Kumiko, the Kyushu National Museum curator. “I think he might have felt some conflict inside himself. In Japan he worked very vigorously [to sustain Japanese art traditions]. But at the same time, he saw the chance to help Fenellosa and Bigelow as an opportunity to change people’s attitudes towards Japanese art and culture.

“Some people may say that it’s a shame we sold all these works that are now national treasures,” said Kumiko. “But others say Bostonians should be thanked for saving these antiquities.”

Japanese audiences like to celebrate what they call “satogaeri,” or “homecoming” exhibitions of their art. At the Kyushu National Museum, the “homecoming” of the MFA works was especially poignant: it was Okakura who pushed vocally for the formation of a great museum in Kyushu.

His vision did not come to fruition for 100 years (the museum opened in 2005). But his efforts are well remembered there, and this memory deepens the significance of the return of the MFA works — so many of which he helped the MFA acquire.

Given its quality and scope, a more significant satogaeri show than “Japanese Masterpieces from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston” is difficult to imagine. So why is there no homecoming celebration marking the return of these works to Boston?

It’s especially puzzling because the MFA’s department of Asian art, which oversees the Japanese collection, is trying hard to raise funds to make much needed improvements to its outdated displays.

Mounting the “Japanese Masterpieces” show in Boston, which would presumably require little extra organizational legwork, could have been the perfect way to trigger a new bout of excitement about the MFA’s Asian collections.

The result would be a boon to the public, which would finally get the chance to appreciate the richness of the Japanese collection in one gulp. It would also be a golden opportunity for the MFA to attract donors.

It might remind people that the MFA’s Asian collection is every bit as good as its American collection, which was recently installed in a $340 million Norman Foster-designed wing. In this new “Asian century,” perhaps the MFA’s matchless Asian collection needs a new wing of its own?

Sebastian Smee can be reached at ssmee@globe.com.
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