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|Art from the East
by Fred Stern
|Some art writers compare the venerable Hon'ami Koetsu (1558-1637), Japan's leading 16th-century genius, with Leonardo da Vinci, but that would be stretching a point. Both men were geniuses of their century and both had wide-ranging influence, but whereas da Vinci was an artist on a grand scale, Koetsu was primarily a minimalist. Like many Japanese artists, he was concerned with the styling of intimate art and craft.
The work of Koetsu is enjoying its first one-man show in the West, at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, July 29-Oct. 29, 2000. It is a relatively small show comprising a little more than 100 works in calligraphy, lacquer and ceramics. For preservation purposes, some of the objects will rotate on Sept. 18.
Koetsu patterned his work after the classical Heian period (794-1185 AD), named after Heian Kyo, "the capital of peace and tranquility," which today bears the name Kyoto. The Heian period is known for the quality of its illustrated scrolls, the beauty of its calligraphy and the carefully measured interplay between technique and superior esthetics. Innovations in design and technique distinguished the period; for instance Heian potters reduced the carbon composition of pots and vases and introduced lighter colors.
Koetsu was fortunate to live in Japan's period of splendid artistic activity, the Momoyama (1573-1615), a brief window of time when the great Tokugawa Shoganate put an end to a lengthy, costly series of civil wars. And like Japanese artists of every period, Koetsu crossed and recrossed the indistinct boundary between arts and crafts.
From early in his career Koetsu worked in concert with other artists, especially Tawaraya Sotatsu (to 1640).
Koetsu's scrollwork expertly integrates the most painstakingly executed calligraphy with images in gold and silver of creatures like cranes, deer and butterflies. The calligraphy illustrates the poetic literature of his time and also that of antiquity. In terms of the calligraphic poems, the mood is often autumnal. A good example is a design of flying cranes with exquisite calligraphy. It's one of the highlights of the Koetsu show.
A fan design on silk includes a moon, a rabbit and bush clover (one of the seven grasses of autumn). Traditionally the rabbit in the moon symbolizes immortality.
Koetsu brought several innovations to the traditional writing box. He combined base metals in new ways, working lead with traditional silver and gold. He highlighted surfaces with mother-of-pearl and other shells.
In the Momoyama period, tea utensils underwent important changes. Raku teabowls -- usually of a rough consistency and irregular form and color -- were preferred. Koetsu soon developed his own mastery of the form. Usually black and carefully glazed, his bowls have stood the test of time for almost three centuries.
A handscroll with a design of flying cranes with exquisite calligraphy is also one of the highlights of the Koetsu show.
Concurrent with the Koetsu exhibition is a display of contemporary Japanese ceramics titled "Currents in Clay," on view through December 2000.
Around 850 objects in three major categories -- Chinese, Japanese and Korean, Indian and Southeast Asian -- are being offered during Asia Week, which can be said to run Sept. 13-27, rather longer than a calendar week.
"We are not after quantity," says Godfrey. "We aim for the most discriminating collectors to make their purchases with us. Each offering must attain its listing on the merits of provenance, clean styling and condition."
The stellar Chinese lot is a blue and white jar with an 11-inch height and a considerable waistline. It dates to the Yuan Dynasty, 1279-1368. Once in the collection of Charles A. Dana, a major figure in Lincoln's 1860 war cabinet and later editor of the New York Sun, the pot has descended in the Dana family. The finely painted jar has a scrolling peony design, bordered by morning glories and a wave pattern revealing a very skillful hand. It carries a low estimate of $400,000.
Another important selection is a "meiping," or flower vase, with cut-in sgraffiti designs, revealing a contrasting ground. This particular vase has a very swirling flower neck design. It is from the Northern Song Dynasty, 960-1127. It is earmarked at $200,000.
The sale also features a rare, archaic wine vessel, a "jia," of the pre-historic Shang Dynasty, 1500-1050 BC. This item is from the collection of General Chiang Kai Shek's nephew and is vetted at $30,000 to $50,000. Rarely does a vessel have such strong distinguishing characteristics, including five notched vertical flanges, flared lips and finials.
The Chinese sale Wednesday, Sept. 20, Sotheby's first of the season, contains 145 other offerings. These include 20 furniture items dating to the 17th century, Tang figures, glazed and unglazed, in every zoological category as well as later-date porcelain, stoneware and ceramics. There is a profusion of colors and dynastic styles.
Thursday Sept. 21 sees the sale of 450 lots of Japanese and Korean works of art in morning and afternoon sessions. The auction begins with a rich assortment of 19th-century lacquered Inros of great complexity and design. These are followed by a group of bamboo flower baskets of more recent design. These kinds of baskets are growing in favor with American collectors.
Among an array of ceramics and pottery, the outstanding offering is a very rare, circular Kutani-ware plate with Fuku marking, dating to the late 17th century. Kutani is a small village on the Sea of Japan, whose creations are heralded for bold and imaginative decorative style. A hare frolics among bushy leaves, green on a gold field, with a huge butterfly balancing the design. A $100,000 low estimate is indicated here. Included in the mornings offerings are Japanese sword components, blades and fittings, many of 17th and 16th century origin.
The afternoon session begins with woodblock prints and a group of two-, four- and six-fold screens. The prize item in this group is an anonymous 17th-century six-fold screen presenting scenes in and around the capital, Kyoto. Featured here is a Kyoto Gion festival with multi-colored floats, each several stories high. Other scenes show the emperor visiting a neighboring castle. The screen is brocade-mounted with ink and gold on a paper ground. It is expected to bring between $200,000 and $250,000.
The Korean component of the sale features blue and white wares of the Choson 18th-century dynasty. The highlight is a dragon jar with two large, four-clawed dragons, apparently pursuing a pearl surrounded by clouds. This superb jar is vetted at $150,000- $200,000.
The third day of sales, Friday, Sept. 22, is devoted to Indian and Southeast Asian art. This is the fastest growing segment of the American market and Sotheby's offers 256 objects. A chola bronze figure of a 13th-century Balakrishna from the famed Belmont collection of Switzerland is one of the top items in the sale. Tagged at a low $60,000, it could bring considerably more. The naked figure on a lotus base represents tranquility as well as exuberance.
Landscape, View from Majitha's House is the prime offering of a large group of paintings. The painting was made famous by Salman Rushdie in his novel, Moor's Last Sigh. Amrita Sher-Gill, the famed Indian artist, studied in Paris and brought European modernism to India. She is quoted as saying, "Europe belongs to Picasso and Matisse. India belongs to me." Produced in 1934, the painting is in the $40,000-$60,000 range.
A superb Tibetan silk applique thanka of Padmasambhava and his two wives, is a stunning ca.1600 work of gigantic size: 100 1/2 inches square. It was sewn in a Tibetan monastery, on Chinese silk; this spectacular thanka carries a presale estimate of $40,000-$60,000.
"What encouraged us more than anything was the phenomenal sale of Japanese Modern and Contemporary Art on Mar. 10. We offered 50 lots. We sold all 50 lots. That is totally unheard of! And the sale brought close to $8,000,000. Amazingly, Saeki Yuzo (1898-1928) alone was responsible for $1,700,000."
While there are no Yuzos in the upcoming sale, it does feature painters of equal stature. The artist Kayama Matazo is represented by a wonderfully expressive four-fold screen, Radiance of Blossoms, showing an exuberant dancer surrounded by white blossoms on a gold field. It is estimated to bring between $150,000 and $200,000.
Equally fantastic is a two-fold screen by the contemporary painter Hawasi Hasui. His Sailing Boat in an Inlet is reminiscent of a work by the Swiss 19th-century modernist Ferdinand Hodler. It carries a presale estimate of $20,000-$30,000. Korea's strongest contemporary painter, Park Sookeun, who had a great success in the March auctions, is featured with a painting of Mother and Child Walking under Trees, which will bring the sale to a close. It is earmarked at $70,000.
Of course, Christie's is not neglecting the other Asian disciplines. The opening salvo for the September auctions will be the Japanese and Korean sale on Tuesday, Sept. 19. The 410 offerings will take three sessions to be presented, at 10 am, 2 pm and a special Korean offering at 5 pm.
Presentations of every segment in the field are very deep, to the great satisfaction of collectors -- inros, sword fittings, ceramics and porcelains and, not least, prints. A rare Sharaku (around 1794) print of a Kabuki actor is estimated at $200,000. A gilt bronze figure dating to the Koryo dynasty of a Boddhisattva is marked at $280,000-$320,000.
On Wednesday, Sept. 20, 337 objects in the Indian and Southeast Asian area are slated to go on the block. Among the highlights are terracotta, stone and bronze statues from Gandhara and Behar.
An important bronze figure of Kubera, the god of wealth, from a private Manhattan collection is expected to bring $175,000-$225,000. A European collector is offering an early thanka from the Sino-Tibetan area of the Chenghua Period, dated 1479. The low estimate of this incomparable hanging is $200,000.
For the first time in its history, based on the fabulous success of its London sale, Christie's offers a sale of modern Indian art in two sections: pre-independence and post-independence. Major Indian artists are represented. Offerings range from $4,000 to $35,000.
The sale of Chinese art will conclude the three-day sequence on Thursday, Sept. 21. All in all, some 400 objects will be offered, including about 50 lots of classical Chinese furniture. The highlight is a standing screen of 17th-century origin with handsomely carved dragons, with foliated scrolls flanked by magnolia and pomegranate blossoms. Estimates run to $300,000.
Bronzes and ceramics include many glazed Tang figures. In this group is a cream-glazed money chest dating from the Tang dynasty that is to be offered at $100,000-$150,000. So will a Daoist album consisting of 50 leaves and showing processions to the Heavenly Court and to Hell, date to the 13th century.
Dr. Weyhe is confident that total sales will easily top $18,000,000.
FRED STERN is Artnet Magazine's Asian art correspondent.