The exhibition opens with a ceramic vessel from the middle Jomon period (ca. 2500–1500 B.C.), which features a flamboyant rim and decorative markings made by impressing parts of a rope into the clay body. Other early ceramics included a Haniwa Figure of a Young Woman with a Large Chignon and a barrel-shaped bottle, or yokobe, both from the sixth century.
Ties to China and Korea are most evident in the introduction of Buddhism to Japan from the Korean kingdom of Paekche in 538. Building temples and commissioning paintings and sculpture were important activities for the members of the imperial family and other privileged individuals during the Nara (710–794), Heian (794–1185), and Kamakura (1185–1333) periods.
Highlights of the exhibition include examples from these earlier periods, such as several sculptures created using the yosegi or joined-wood technique, such as an image of Bishamonten, the guardian of the North, and that of Fudo, a fierce protector. A representation of the Bodhisattva Jizo is the work of Kaikei (active 1185–1223), a member of the prominent Kei school noted for his tempering of the powerful realism of the Kamakura period with the courtly elegance of an earlier style. The blending of the imported religion of Buddhism with such older native traditions as Shinto was illustrated by rare examples of male and female Shinto gods from the tenth century, and an evocative fourteenth-century moonlit landscape depicting the Shinto Kasuga shrine in Nara.
Several ink paintings from the Muromachi period (1392–1573), an area of particular strength within the collection, are on display as well, including the diptych Orchids by Bonpo, and a depiction of the Chinese Zen masters Bukan, Kanzan, and Jittoku by Reisai, both active in the fifteenth century. Sesson Shukei, a master of the sixteenth century, is represented by two landscapes and by the Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove, a parody of a traditional Chinese theme of individualism and eremitism that resonated in Zen circles.
The bold graphic forms of the green willows and golden bridge in the sixteenth-century Willows and Bridge, also on view, exemplify the taste of the ruling elite during the short-lived Momoyama period (1573–1615). This pair of folding screens is often thought to represent the bridge over the Uji River, in southeast Kyoto, a famous Japanese site celebrated in Japanese literature as early as the eighth century. Powerful, simplified designs and striking contrasts in shape and color are also evident in the seven examples of lacquer in the Kodaiji style, such as the set of shelves decorated with a grapevine motif. Named after the small Kodaiji, built as a mortuary temple by the widow of the powerful warlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1536–1598), lacquers in this style illustrate a novel and simplified use of the Japanese maki-e technique, in which designs are created by sprinkling pieces of gold onto a black lacquer background. The vibrant presence and tactile surfaces of ceramics produced for use in the tea ceremony, which was first codified in the sixteenth century, also illustrate the aesthetics of this period. Extraordinary examples include a water jar from the Iga kilns, a black Seto tea bowl, and a white Shino example sketchily painted with a design of a bridge and a house.
A comparison between two pairs of screens depicting cranes, one by Ishida Yutei (1721–1786) and the other by Nagasawa Rosetsu (1754–1799), attests to the liveliness and diversity that characterize Japanese art during the prosperous and stable Edo period (1615&ndash1868). Set against a gold background, Yutei's cranes are drawn with clean black outlines and painted in shades of white, black, and gray, with touches of color around the heads. Rosetsu's birds, on the other hand, are created with bold, black slashes of ink placed against empty areas of white paper. The use of this technique and the somewhat eccentric personalities of the birds explain his position as one of the three great individualist masters of eighteenth-century painting, along with Ito Jakuchu (1716–1800) and Soga Shohaku (1730–1781), who are also represented in the exhibition.