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Gold burial mask
Tang dynasty (618-906)
at the Asia Museum



Bronze figure of a dancing Central Asian
Tang dynasty
7th century



Clay figure of Kasyapa
Western Wei period (535-557)



Stone Buddhist pagoda
Northern Wei period
(439-535)



Earthenware jar
Yayoi period
ca. 1st century A.D.
at Japan Society



Wajima lacquer spouted bowl
Edo period
18th century



Hyakawa Shokosai III
Hanging flower container
Meiji period
1867



Campaign coat
Edo period
mid-19th century



Scabbard maker's shop sign
Late Edo period
19th century
Art from the East
by Fred Stern


The new Asia Museum and its amazing exhibitions
Wow! is what you say as you enter the new Asia Society Galleries, soon to be renamed the Asia Museum. The facility was closed for some time while undergoing an interior redesign and renovation. Now, the museum has reopened in triumph.

The entrance hall and its reception desk seem ready to help you embark on that long destined trip to the moon. On the first level a vast new glass-enclosed skylight floods the garden court with light, while a new cafe invites visitors to linger. This court will also be the venue for performances, discussions with artists and readings. The gift counter and bookshop have also been relocated from off the entryway to airier, quieter surroundings.

A dreamy flight of stairs leads to the principal exhibition area, and here the installations spring to life with the most creative use of space I have seen in a long time. The third floor offers large facilities for the museum's core holdings, the John D. Rockefeller Collection. Guest artists have additional display facilities in adjoining rooms.

The inaugural exhibition is "Monks and Merchants: Silk Road Treasures from Northwest China."

A total of 120 Silk Road treasures are displayed in quiet alcoves and dramatic vitrines. This exhibition is the first in the world to concentrate on the four centuries between the fall of the Han dynasty in the 4th century and the rise of the Tang rulers through the 7th. The focus is on art in Northwest China, in particular Gansu province and the Ningxia Hui autonomous region. At that time, a feverish cultural exchange took place along the silk road linking China with the West. Saffron-robed monks from Kashmir and India traversed the route promoting Buddhism. Traders from as far away as Bukhara and Samarkand were bringing not only their goods and cultural objects, but exciting new ideas that for centuries would spark the imagination of Chinese artists and craftsmen.

It is interesting to see how the influence of the Silk Road brought changes. One example was the use of precious metals for Chinese burial masks, which had usually been made of jade. The gold mask on display was made after the Silk Road contact. Another example is the swift Central Asian horse, which soon replaced the ponylike creatures in use in China before the Silk Road.

Recent archeological discoveries have made this exhibition possible. Many objects were uncovered only within the past 10 years. Clues from the excavations helped scholars to piece together credible attributions.

The objects exhibited include important Buddhist sculptures from Dunhuang and Maijishan, two of China's most important Buddhist grottos. But there are also a great many items from Central and Western Asia. These include a silver-gilt ewer with classical scenes, Sasanian glass bowls and swords as well as rare Byzantine coins.

The exhibition ends on Jan. 7, 2002. Don't miss it! The Asia Museum at 725 Park Avenue at 70th Street in New York City.

"Five Tastes" at Japan Society
The new exhibition at Japan Society, "Traditional Japanese Design: Five Tastes," examines the five approaches to design in classical Japan -- artless simplicity (Soboku), Zen austerity (Wabi), gorgeous splendor (Karei) and Edo chic (Iki). A special section is devoted to fantastic archeological objects, and is called ancient times (Kodai no bi). Some 140 everyday objects have been chosen to reflect Japanese lifestyles during diverse historic times, with a special concentration on the Edo period between the 16th and 19th century. The objects include lacquer, ceramics, metalwork, basketry and textiles.

Within each period excellence is reached by different means. Yet, as the exhibition affirms, Japanese design preferences remain consistent over the periods.

Works for this exhibition were borrowed from many institutions but especially from Asia Society, the Brooklyn Museum and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

"Japanese design," according to Alexandra Munroe, director of the Japan Society Gallery, "has always had bold simplicity and graphic power. This show celebrates the forms, textures and images that have inspired modern and contemporary design."

The exhibition segment devoted to the antique (Kodai no bi) demonstrates how the basic Japanese design genius had already manifested itself in the prehistoric era in earthenware jars, stone tools and jewelry. The massive simplicity of these objects is totally use-related.

The exhibition segment called artless simplicity (Soboku) could be subtitled "back to nature." Here are highly functional objects made for a rural environment. They are primarily involved in food preparation, and include an 18th-century bright red lacquered spouted bowl in Wajima ware used for pouring sake, a kneading basin of Paulawnia wood, tea kettles, sumptuous baskets and utilitarian textiles.

The Zen austerity (Wabi) segment focuses on an esthetic concept that is among the most refined in the culture. What the objects may lack in value is made up in the nobility of spirit. The concept is based entirely on the "tea ceremony" and has an understandable appeal to the common man. What the objects may lack in value is made up in their nobility of spirit. The items in the segment include water jars, tea bowls, charcoal baskets, hanging flower baskets, food boxes and kettles.

The gorgeous splendor (Karei) segment is a tribute to the nobility and ruling warrior class. Here is design of a most refined quality. Of course you will find beautifully incised samurai swords and sword guards. Often the samurai were adorned with campaign coats which the samurai wore over their elaborate armor. Women's robes called kosode, beautiful precursors of the kimono, were worn by those of the samurai class. The elegance of the period is demonstrated by the exquisite beauty of writing boxes and their sumptuous supporting tables.

In the Edo chic (Iki) segment, the taste of the citizens of Tokyo, the floating world, kabuki theater and the pleasure quarters, are displayed in the understated elegance and graphic simplicity that characterize the objects of this period. Included are textiles of great simplicity and somber coloring, inros, tobacco containers, shop signs and Mukozuke dishes of Arita ware with a cobalt blue underglaze.

Because of the intriguing way in which the various sections are presented, a visitor to the exhibition is not the least fatigued, despite the more than 140 objects on view. The show is up till Jan. 7, 2002, at Japan Society, 333 East 47 Street in New York.


FRED STERN writes on art and antiques.