While the Museum of Fine Arts boasts the greatest collection of Japanese art outside of Japan, neither gallery space nor funding at present are anywhere near adequate to the task of displaying the collection as it deserves to be seen. It’s an ongoing frustration — in many ways a travesty.
Since the core of the Japanese collection was formed in unique circumstances a century ago, the museum also faces another challenge: keeping the Japanese collection alive and fresh. Here it is doing better.
Determined to keep her collection moving with the times, the MFA’s energetic head curator of Japanese art, Anne Nishimura Morse, is trying to cultivate new and younger collectors. And she is always looking out for opportunities to show Japanese contemporary art.
“Fired Earth, Woven Bamboo: Contemporary Japanese Ceramics and Bamboo Art” is one fruit of these efforts. It is a smart, visually appealing display of 60 three-dimensional objects — ceramics and baskets, although not as you might think of those categories — from a collection of more than 90 works recently given to the museum by the collectors Stanley and Mary Ann Snider.
The show makes a great pendant to a smaller, intensely dramatic display of a three-part ceramic sculpture by Nishida Jun upstairs at the MFA (above the main bookstore). His piece, “Zetsu #8” (“zetsu” means “finality”), comes from a series of similarly ambitious works.
In a darkened and dramatically spotlighted room, three monolithic ceramic slabs are displayed chest high in separate vitrines. All three were fired as one massive piece. They subsequently fractured, and now coexist as silent but highly charged evidence of some untraceable past event. They are part freak geological accident, part gorgeous human ruin.
When Nishida placed his huge block of porcelain clay and glaze (so much glaze that in parts it is 10 inches thick) into an intensely hot kiln, he simply let the heat have its way. The effects are shattering, exquisite, awesome. The words reek of hyperbole, but few others avail: This is a work you respond to viscerally.
Much of the vitrified surface of “Zetsu #8” is shiny and smooth. But areas that, before the cleave, were buried too deep to be fired remain powdery and, in places, almost cakey. Whole sections slump like loose skin. Fins that Nishida built onto the slab collapsed and spilled over other parts. Coral-like colors — flushing pinks and queasy greens — emerge alongside areas that are flaking or marbled.
While still in his 20s, Nishida became an international star in the world of ceramics. He won prizes in Italy, Japan, and Korea. But in 2005, he took a break and went with two Japanese colleagues to Bali. His dream — surprising, perhaps, when you consider the revolutionary impulses pulsating beneath his own work — was to help local Balinese ceramic artists nurture and maintain their local pottery traditions.
Tragically, in the pursuit of this dream, Nishida died there in a massive kiln explosion. He was just 28.
“Zetsu #8” is now part of the MFA’s permanent collection. Preserving and storing it won’t be easy. Like a child’s sandcastle crisscrossed with one too many underground tunnels, it appears to teeter on the edge of collapse. And of course, in that sense, it also feels deeply human. It is a living thing — and as such, one hopes, a consolation to Nishida’s parents, who made their first trip to Boston to visit “Zetsu #8” only a few weeks ago.
Downstairs, “Fired Earth, Woven Bamboo” feels like a very different affair. But it serves as an illuminating overview of innovations in Japanese ceramics since before the Second World War (with an emphasis on recent years), and it shows off a very fine collection. It is accompanied by a catalog authored by Kazuko Todate, a Japanese art historian and critic, with contributions from Morse.
It includes a few works by Nishida’s earliest avant-garde predecessors — people like Tomimoto Kenkichi, whose work can also be seen in the upstairs permanent collection gallery. Widely regarded as Japan’s most important ceramic artist of the 20th century, Tomimoto studied in London before the First World War, and was influenced there by the Arts and Crafts movement.
The insights and ambitions he brought back to Japan — above all, a determination to make of clay an expressive medium — helped to generate a passion for formal experimentation in his country. This shift was directly inspired by modern artists in Europe and, later on, in the United States.
When Tomimoto Kenkichi returned from London, quite suddenly ceramics began to look wildly different from traditional works, and from one another. If they were vessels, it was often in name only.
Quite suddenly ceramics began to look wildly different from traditional works, and from one another. If they were vessels, it was often in name only.
Bamboo morphed away from conventional shapes just as quickly. In the 1930s, basket makers like Maeda Chikubosai I began to break new ground. In a basket he made here using bamboo roots, he seems to make a special point of emphasizing their unruly, root-like nature.
From there, change accelerated dramatically, and today, unruliness has become the norm. Artists such as Torii Ippo, Honma Hideaki, and Morigami Jin appear capable of transforming woven bamboo into almost any form. And again, what’s notable is how much their craft owes to European modernism — and especially to the sculptures of Barbara Hepworth and Henry Moore, and their fascination with the taut interplay between the insides and outsides of three-dimensional forms.
Still, for all the formal innovation on display here, it’s clear that tradition still counts. Some of the best ceramic artists here are descended from renowned figures in the same field. Kondo Takahiro, for instance, is the grandson of Kondo Yuzo, whose work is also on display in the permanent collection.
Kondo Yuzo holds the title of Important Intangible Cultural Property for his pioneering work with underglazed cobalt porcelains. His grandson’s tower-like “Blue Green Mist” is notable for its glimmering surface — a delicate platinum beading conjuring condensation that was developed, and patented, by the artist.
Admittedly, some of the work here feels hackneyed, and some appears gratuitously inventive. But there are many standouts. Sakurai Yasuko’s “Vertical Flower” — a white porcelain bowl whose subtly angled perforations are so large they transform the bowl into a kind of skeleton — casts haunting shadows.
Kishi Eiko’s consummate “No. 4” conjures a tightly stretched and pleated Issey Miyake outfit transformed to stone. And Fukami Sueharu’s “The Moment (Shun)” shows this exquisitely assured artist at his very best.
The show is supplemented by a selection of contemporary textiles along the gallery walls. Don’t overlook the conjoined, five-panel work by Nishimura Yuko. Barely qualifying as a textile, it is made from highest quality official document paper. The paper has been folded into rigorously geometric patterns that emerge from the wall in low relief.
The work is called “Wave” and although it is entirely white, the play of geometry and shadow is unnervingly optical and tests one’s eyes. But the trouble is not merely on the viewer’s end: An artist’s choice of material can extract its own price. Morse, the curator, told me that when the artist tried to enter the United States, she was knocked back at customs. She has done so much paper folding over her lifetime that her fingerprints have been worn away.Sebastian Smee can be reached at email@example.com.