By all accounts, Harry C. G. Packard (1914–1991) was no ordinary collector. He is known to have crisscrossed the United States multiple times in order to sell works of Japanese art, only to return to Japan to purchase more. He had a most unusual vision; whereas the majority of collectors, scholars, and dealers tend to focus on a particular area or medium, Packard’s ambitions were more encyclopedic, not unlike that of the Met. He wished to create a comprehensive collection that covered the important phases and styles of Japanese art across a broad spectrum of media. Those who knew him regarded him as a teacher who used his collection as his textbook. The current exhibition Five Thousand Years of Japanese Art: Treasures from the Packard Collection, on view through Sunday, June 6, marks the thirty-fifth anniversary of the Museum's acquisition, by gift and purchase, of the more than four hundred works of Japanese art from that textbook’s richly illustrated pages.
At the time the collection arrived at the Museum, there were no galleries devoted to Japanese art. It was not until 1987, on the occasion of the inaugural exhibition in the Japanese Galleries in the Sackler Wing, that a substantial array of works from the Packard Collection could be displayed. Since that time, the collection has remained the core of the Met’s holdings in Japanese art, and each gallery rotation presents an opportunity to see parts of it on view. But now, for the first time ever, the entire galleries have been used to demonstrate the fantastic breadth of the Packard Collection.
Today, it would be possible only with great difficulty, if at all, to acquire some of the types of work that Packard collected from the 1950s through the 1970s; few privately owned examples still exist. Two of the pieces that stand out in this regard date to the Muromachi period (1392–1573). They are a subtle and beautiful hanging scroll—Orchids and Rocks (1975.268.38) by Gyokuen Bompō (ca. 1348–after 1420)—and a delicate pair of folding screens—Bamboo in the Four Seasons (1975.268.44,45, shown above)—attributed to Tosa Mitsunobu (1434–1525). Bompō was among the circle of Zen Buddhist monks painting in the Kyoto monastic community who considered themselves monks first and painters second. Tosa Mitsunobu, on the other hand, was head of the painting atelier of the imperial court, later appointed a painter for the Ashikaga military regime. The works of the two painters exemplify the classical division between what is considered Chinese-style and Japanese-style painting in Japanese art, but at the same time are related in their sensitive approach to the natural world. Bompō uses two different types of orchids clustered around the same rock to indicate the complex fragrance of mutual understanding; in the painting attributed to Mitsunobu, the artist has challenged himself to indicate all four seasons using a single, non-flowering plant.
Some of the other highlights of the collection, as well as an introduction to the life of their collector, will be presented by noted scholars of Japanese art on Sunday, April 18, beginning at 3:00 p.m., as part of a Sunday at the Met program. In addition, I'll be giving gallery talks about the show on Friday, April 23, and Thursday, May 6, at 11:00 a.m. As a closing weekend event, on Friday, June 4, we’ll have a lecture featuring groundbreaking research on a pair of six-fold screens by Kano Einō (1631–1697) recently acquired as a complement to The Old Plum (1975.268.48a–d, shown above), the set of four sliding-door panels by Kano Sansetsu (1589–1651), Einō’s father, in the Packard Collection. The talk will be given by Columbia University graduate student Aaron Rio at 6:00 p.m. in the Bonnie J. Sacerdote Lecture Hall.
Sinéad Kehoe is assistant curator of Japanese art in the Department of Asian Art.
Five Thousand Years of Japanese Art: Treasures from the Packard Collection
Through June 6, 2010
The Sackler Wing Galleries for the Arts of Japan, 2nd floor
Sunday at the Met—Five Thousand Years of Japanese Art: Treasures from the Packard Collection
Sunday, April 18, 3:00 p.m.
The Grace Rainey Rogers Auditorium
Free with Museum admission
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