Sunday, May 6, 2012

Masters of Mercy: Buddha's Amazing Disciples

Where: Sackler Gallery

When: through July 8, 2012

The Sackler and Freer are celebrating a "Japan Spring" this year, in honor of the 100th anniversary of the Japanese gift of the cherry trees to Washington, DC.  When you add in the fantastic Colorful Realm show at the National Gallery (which has closed now - so I hope everyone in or near DC got a chance to see it), it's a grand time to see Japanese art here in our nation's capital.

This exhibit is enormous; I had no idea how big it was when I entered - it's on two levels and there are several rooms full of scrolls on each level.  It's really too much for a lunch time visit; I would recommend taking two days to see everything.  Also, in May (not sure when) some of the scrolls currently on display will be swapped out for different scrolls, so that's another reason to make a return trip.

The focus of this show is the Buddha's disciples.  There is a story in Buddhism that the Buddha was speaking to a crowd of people, when all at once, 500 men were given instant enlightenment.  These people, known as the Buddha's disciples, then went on to perform acts of kindness for others and live in a way designed to reduce the need for earthly desires, such as food, clothing or shelter.  The artist, Kano Kazunobu, painted 100 scrolls showing both their merciful deeds and their everyday lives.  The scrolls were originally designed for the Zojoji Temple in Edo (present-day Tokyo).  The temple was destroyed by fire, but luckily the paintings, which were only infrequently at the temple, survived.  These scrolls, like the Colorful Realm scrolls, have never been displayed outside of Japan before.

Along with the main set of scrolls, there are also on display two scrolls on this same subject from the 1100s.  The older the art, the more interesting I find it, so I was quite happy to look at these.  Painted almost 900 years ago, they've managed to survive an seemingly infinite number of human upheavals and can delight and engage the viewer to this day.  This never ceases to amaze me.

Also on view is information on an earlier exhibition of these scrolls.  The Temple needed money and in the late 1800s put the works on display.  Among the visitors was Boston Museum of Fine Arts curator Ernest Fenollosa.  He was so taken with the show that he became a Buddhist!  Bernard Berenson, a Renaissance art connoisseur, also greatly impressed with the exhibit, said, "I do not wonder Fenollosa has gone into esoteric Buddhism.  What is so convincing as art?"

Interestingly enough, at the time that Kazunobu painted these works, Japan was going through a time of great upheaval.  Increasing contact with the West, natural disasters, and the violent collapse of the ruling regime made people turn to entertaining spectacles and religious cults.  Sounds familiar...  Something that struck me as I looked at the various scrolls - Hell is depicted as a frozen pond - very different than the Western idea of hell as everlasting fire.

Difficult as it is to believe, these paintings were overlooked for most of the 20th century.  It was only in the 1980s that there was a revival of interest in them, and the first time they were all displayed together was in a major exhibition in Tokyo in 2011.

Verdict: See this show, but know that you'll need plenty of time to take in everything!

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