Exhibitions/ Great Waves

Great Waves: Chinese Themes in the Arts of Korea and Japan

March 1–September 21, 2003
Exhibitions are free with Museum admission.

Exhibition Overview

Drawn from the Museum's unparalleled collection of East Asian painting, this exhibition explores how Chinese pictorial themes—Buddhist iconography, landscape imagery, flower and bird subjects, and figural narratives—were selectively adopted and reinterpreted by artists in Korea and Japan. Organized thematically, the exhibition focuses on landscapes and images from nature and on the figural arts, including religious and narrative themes. Works from China, Japan, and Korea are shown in the galleries for Chinese Painting and Calligraphy and in the galleries for the Arts of Japan.

The gallery dedicated to landscape and nature opens with images of water, fish, and dragons that include Chinese works dating from the twelfth to the fifteenth century, including the imposing two-panel screen, Waves, which was painted around 1704–11 by the Japanese master Ogata Korin (1658–1716).

The second gallery demonstrates how the Chinese narrative handscroll format was adapted in Japan. The display features a set of three handscrolls from Japan's Nanbokucho Period (1336–1392) that illustrate the Tale of Aki-no-yonaga (Tale for the Long Autumn Night). As with the Chinese prototypes, the Japanese scrolls alternate text passages with images, often showing figures in a landscape setting.

The third gallery illustrates the enormous impact of the courtly art of China's Southern Song dynasty (1127–1279) on the painting styles of Korea's Choson dynasty (1392–1910) and Muromachi Period (1392–1573) Japan. In China, the scenery of West Lake at the Southern Song capital of Hangzhou and the mist-filled landscapes of southern China were celebrated in poetry as well as in lyrical pictorial images, such as those created by Xia Gui (active ca. 1195–1230). This evocative ink-wash style was exported to Japan by visiting diplomats, monks, and merchants. But the intimately scaled album leaves and scrolls of Chinese tradition were often transformed into multi-panel screen paintings in Japan, where artists learned to enlarge and recompose familiar picture elements to suit this expanded format. Because Korea is much closer to north China and had few maritime connections to the Southern Song dynasty, Korean landscape painters derived their principal inspiration from the eleventh-century Chinese master Guo Xi (ca. 1000–ca. 1090), who built up his landscapes with a combination of outlines, texture strokes, and ink washes that run into each other, creating an impression of wet, blurry surfaces that makes his forms appear to emerge from a dense, moisture-laden atmosphere.

With the Ming dynasty (1368–1644), native rule was re-established in China after more than a hundred years of Mongol occupation. Seeking to restore native artistic traditions, Song landscape themes and motifs were revived and adapted by court artists to suit the new decorative and didactic needs of the Ming emperors. The fourth gallery in the exhibition is devoted to the display of several such Ming landscapes, together with parallel images on Japanese screen and scroll paintings.

The "flower and bird" genre of painting flourished in Song China beginning with the patronage of the emperor Huizong (reigned 1101–25), who was himself an accomplished artist, and whose Finches and Bamboo is on view. Chinese court painters specialized in vividly naturalistic and meticulously rendered depictions of the plants and animals found in the imperial gardens. In Japan, these same subjects decorate six-fold screens, often in a sequence of vignettes that progressed through the four seasons. Striking differences in the use of such imagery are highlighted in the exhibition by the juxtaposition of the politically charged Birds in a Lotus Pond by the Ming loyalist painter Zhu Da (Bada Shanren; 1626–1705) of about 1690 and the elegantly decorative Poems on Lotus-Decorated Paper—painted by Tawaraya Sotatsu (died ca. 1640) with calligraphy by Hon'ami Koetsu (1558–1637) in early Edo Period (1615–1868) Japan—depicting the life cycle of the lotus.

Plum and bamboo—two favorite subjects in East Asia—are the focus of two other exhibition galleries. Because bamboo remains green throughout the winter, and because the plum is one of the first flowers to bloom in the spring, often while snow is still on the ground, these plants have come to symbolize survival and renewal in the face of adversity. First painted in China both in rich mineral colors and in monochrome ink on paper, the universal appeal of these subjects is demonstrated by a full range of interpretations from fourteenth-century China through nineteenth-century Korea and Japan.

Also featured in the exhibition is a group of landscape paintings dating from the seventeenth to the nineteenth century that illustrate the impact of the so-called Southern School style of scholar-amateur painting developed by Dong Qichang (1555–1636) and his followers in China, as well as the Japanese reinterpretation of this style, known as "Nanga" (from the Chinese "Nanhua," or "Southern School").

The display of figural arts in the Arts of Japan galleries opened with a group of early Buddhist icons and illustrated scriptures ornamented with rich mineral colors, silver, and gold. Such works have rarely survived in China, but important twelfth- to fourteenth-century examples from both China and Korea have been preserved in Japan, where they became important iconographic and stylistic models. Mounted with rich brocade borders in the Japanese manner, these scrolls present vividly rendered scenes of paradise and hell to awe and inspire the faithful.

Emphasizing meditation and self-cultivation over ritual practice, Chan Buddhism had an immediate appeal for the intellectual and military elites of East Asia. The exhibition highlights an important group of thirteenth- and fourteenth-century Chinese Chan paintings—intimate devotional images by monk-artists—that depict spiritual exemplars. These paintings are often enhanced with inscriptions by famous abbots and spiritual teachers that take the form of riddles intended to encourage the Chan practitioner's search for individual enlightenment. Alongside these works are displayed Japanese Zen-inspired paintings of the Muromachi Period (1392—1573), including a delightful screen painting of gibbons reaching for the image of the moon reflected in a stream—a symbol of the practitioner's quest to grasp the ineffable—by the sixteenth-century artist Sesson.

This portion of the exhibition features a grand display of narrative themes, including the world-famous screens Iris and Bridge by Ogata Korin. One of the artist's last works, this deceptively simple composition in a brilliant palette of purple, green, and gray against the gilded background is the ultimate abstraction of a famous episode from the tenth-century classic The Tales of Ise. Free of human figures, the composition epitomizes Rinpa artists' superb transformation of narrative themes into bold designs in gleaming colors.

A number of East Asian textiles, lacquers, and ceramics decorated with motifs similar to those found in the paintings complement the display in both sets of galleries.

The exhibition is made possible by the Parnassus Foundation, courtesy of Jane and Raphael Bernstein.

Exhibition Objects