Monday, February 24, 2014

Tokyo National Museum 東京国立博物館

 Tickets, tickets please.

Last week I went to view the two special exhibitions at the Tokyo National Museum- Masterworks of Japanese Painting from the Cleveland Museum of Art, and Artworks by Living National Treasures. I had two complimentary tickets, and so my mom and I made an afternoon of it, having a lovely lunch in Ueno before viewing the two shows. 

Plum blossoms at the TNM.

 The exhibitions were both quite fantastic, but I was quite struck by the differences between the two exhibitions. The Cleveland show, while admittedly focused on painting, exhibited historic works- Buddhist painting, landscape painting, paintings of beautiful women, with subject matter that is commonly thought of as "traditional" Japanese art. The works in this exhibition highlighted subject matter that I am familiar with, and materials that are straightforward for art historians to explain. In other words, the Cleveland exhibition focused on the canon of Japanese art. On the other hand, the Living National Treasures exhibition highlighted objects that commonly fall under the category of decorative art- things such as ceramics, metalwork, textiles, basketry, and lacquerware. Prior to the late 19th century, these types of objects were held with high regard in Japan. It was with the imposition of the European hierarchical art system in museums and universities that painting and sculpture came to be of a higher regard than other art forms. Some of the history of the classification system also relates to gender roles in Europe that then impacted the larger art system- decorative arts are gendered as feminine, particularly textiles, but also other forms of domestic arts or crafts, while painting and sculpture are gendered as masculine, and by extension painting and sculpture are viewed as superior. As I walked through the selections in the Living National Treasure exhibition I kept questioning the reasoning for continuing this system of hierarchy. The objects in the Living National Treasure show were just as, if not more, impressive than those in the Cleveland painting show. Objects that were created in the 20th and 21st centuries were juxtaposed with historic works using the same techniques, and many of the artworks were of phenomenal construction and design. Unfortunately, objects classified as decorative art or craft are not generally taught in art history courses, and in the U.S. these objects are not given as much attention in the museum setting. Things are changing with contemporary art, yet art history remains steadfast in the privileging of painting and sculpture over other forms of art. I'm curious to know what others think about the classification of objects- is it frustrating? Justified? Feel free to leave a comment below.

In front of the main museum building at TNM.

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