Exhibition

Kyoto: Capital of Artistic Imagination

24 Jul 2019 – 26 Jan 2020

The Metropolitan Museum of Art

New York
New York, United States

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Opening on July 24, The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s upcoming exhibition in the Arts of Japan Galleries will highlight decorative arts—including lacquer, ceramics, and textiles— created in Kyoto, Japan, from the eighth century to the present.

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 Showcasing more than 150 objects in two rotations, almost all drawn from The Met collection, Kyoto: Capital of Artistic Imagination will focus on the main turning points in Kyoto’s cultural history and examine how political changes and transitions in the city’s social structure influenced its art. The rich cultural heritage of this city was profoundly shaped by the presence of the emperor and aristocrats as well as high-ranking warriors, varied groups of artists, and literati working in the orbit of the palace. Highlights among the works on view, include a medieval armor believed to have been donated to a temple by Ashikaga Takauji (1305–1358), founder of the Ashikaga shogunate; a set of five camellia-shaped side dishes in vivid colors from the workshop of the famous potter and painter Ogata Kenzan (1663–1743); and a rare 18th-century atsuita Noh robe worn by a leading male actor playing a warlord, god, demon, or similar role.

The exhibition is made possible by The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Foundation Fund. 

Heian-kyō, as modern-day Kyoto was once referred to, became the seat of the imperial court in 794 and remained the capital of Japan until 1869, when the court was transferred to Tokyo. In the Heian period (794–1185) the culture of the court flourished, leading to new developments in the arts, but in 1185, a new military government was formed, marking the rise of the samurai class. This political transition is captured in the exhibition’s 17th-century folding screen The Rebellions of the Hōgen and Heiji Eras. During the Muromachi period (1338–1573), the Ashikaga shogunate nurtured the formation of tea culture, Noh theater, ikebana, and ink painting, and established the Higashiyama culture. The refined ink painting traditions of the time will be represented by a pair of folding screens by Sōami (d. 1525), who served as an artistic adviser to the shogunate. 

The Momoyama period (1573–1615) is often referred to as Japan’s Golden Age, evoking a dynamic and sumptuous style, with gold lavishly applied to architecture, lacquer furnishings, folding screens, and garments. The revitalization of the city after years of war created a burgeoning milieu for all kinds of art forms, and in addition to the continued trade with China and Korea, the arrival of Portuguese and Dutch merchants and Catholic missionaries brought new technologies and goods to Japan. The exhibition will include exquisite pieces such as lacquers made for the domestic market, a large Nanban lacquer coffer created for the European market, and a stunning battle surcoat (jinbaori) designed for a high-ranking samurai using European import materials. Tea implements and calligraphies will also be on view.

The establishment of the Tokugawa shogunate in 1603 in Edo (present-day Tokyo) by Tokugawa Ieyasu (1543–1616) seemingly marginalized the role of Kyoto and had a profound effect on the art forms and urban lifestyle of the city. The renewal and stimulation of the artistic networks of Kyoto served to demonstrate the city’s place as the cultural capital. With the merchant class being the main clientele, Kyoto excelled in the production of lacquers and ceramics with colorful, overglaze decoration (Kyoto ware) and turned into a major center of textile production. In the exhibition, bold Rinpa-style ceramics and lacquers, refined Noh robes, and richly embellished kimonos will be juxtaposed with hanging scrolls and folding screens depicting Kyoto and its citizens. One of the most talented ceramicists of the late Edo period was Nin’ami Dōhachi (1783–1855), and his exceptionally large bowl embellished with cherry blossoms and maple leaves will also be included in the exhibition.

The last decades of the Edo period saw a revival of interest in Heian-period court and literati culture, as well as the creation of new styles. In 1869, when the emperor’s permanent residence was transferred to Tokyo, which became Japan’s new capital, Kyoto’s cultural and economic role had to be reinvented.  

The arts of Kyoto became carriers of cultural continuity and authenticity, and the city is seen today as a national repository of a multitude of art forms, including tea, Noh theater, various schools of painting and decorative arts.

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