LACMA Lands a Japanese Treasure

LACMA has acquired “the finest pair of Japanese screen paintings to ever leave Japan in the 440-year history of Western contact”: so says curator Robert T. Singer of Maruyama Okyo’s Cranes (1772). Purchased with funds from Camilla Chandler Frost, in honor of Singer, they go on public view in the Japanese Pavilion starting Saturday January 19. Up until now, the public has been able to lay eyes on the Cranes for a total of eight weeks. Emperors Hirohito and Akihito viewed them privately in the 1950s, when they were in the Harihan collection.

Four of Okyo’s five best-known pairs of screens are registered as National Treasures or Important Cultural Properties. This, the only known pair that an American museum could dream of owning, is a turning point in global art history, almost equally for its empiricism and abstraction.

The feathers of Okyo’s birds have been compared to those on Dürer’s. Up close, you could be fooled into thinking that Okyo had pasted real feathers onto the gold leaf rather than painting them. Dürer’s Wing of a Roller is 8 inches square. The two Okyo Cranes are 11.5 feet wide each, 23 feet total.

Okyo must have seen similar groupings of cranes on the grounds of the Imperial Palace. The red-crowned and white-naped (gray) species associate in nature. As a symbol of harmony, fidelity, and the Japanese nation, cranes were a already a popular subject before Okyo. Ogata Korin painted them. Okyo’s interpretation is innovative not only for its objectivity but for its absence of landscape and horizon. Italy supplanted gold ground  with realistic backgrounds, while Okyo moved in the opposite direction.

Okyo’s miserable teen-age job was painting faces onto dolls for a toy shop. There or thereabouts he encountered Dutch prints and stereoscopes, the latter promising 3D images. Way before photography Okyo became a master of hand-painted op.

To some contemporaries Okyo was suspiciously Western, his realism a cheap gimmick. Not unlike Caravaggio, he was damned for being too violent, too sexy, too disregarding of the conventions of serious art. One tale says that Okyo was commissioned to paint a patron’s deceased relation. The ghostly likeness scared the artist himself. Tsukioka Yoshitoshi illustrated the legend in a 19th century print (right). Okyo also did nudes from life, the first from a major Japanese artist, when these were considered pornography.

Okyo founded the literal art school that became the nucleus of the Maruyama-Shijo school, shaping Japanese naturalism for centuries.

One index of Okyo’s esteem is that a pair of gold-ground Cranes screens were auctioned at Christies in 2007 (as by Okyo), fetching $1,105,000, more than any Japanese painting had gone for at auction in over a decade. Another pair of Cranes ascribed to Okyo is in the Art Gallery of New South Wales (Australia). Neither compares to the LACMA screens for their provenance, publication history, pristine condition, and renown. When last sold, in 1926, the LACMA Cranes went for 16,800 Yen. The buyer mortgaged his property to make the purchase because he could not bear to live without them.

Singer spent 13 years locating the screens’ owner, and three more years in securing an export license. The press release says that Japan permitted the export “in recognition of the growing importance of LACMA’s Pavilion for Japanese Art and its collections, and in the hope that Americans and Europeans can thereby appreciate the very highest achievement in the history of Japanese painting.”

Okyo did Cranes in his thirties. As his eyesight weakened he invented a softer, less meticulous late style. LACMA has long owned another pair of Okyo screens in ink wash: Puppies among Bamboo in the Snow (below) and Landscape in Snow (1784). The winter landscapes will also go on view this weekend.

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