Exhibitions/ Celebrating the Arts of Japan

Celebrating the Arts of Japan: The Mary Griggs Burke Collection

At The Met Fifth Avenue through
January 22 / 2017
Exhibitions are free with Museum admission.

Exhibition Overview

This tribute to a great collector reveals the distinctive features of Japanese art as viewed through the lens of fifty years of collecting: the sublime spirituality of Buddhist and Shinto art; the boldness of Zen ink painting; the imaginary world conjured up by the Tale of Genji and classical Japanese literature; the sumptuous colors of bird-and-flower painting; the subtlety of poetry, calligraphy, and literati themes; the aestheticized accoutrements of the tea ceremony; and the charming portraiture of courtesans from the "floating world" (ukiyo-e).

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The exhibition is made possible by the Mary Griggs Burke Fund, gift of the Mary Livingston Griggs and Mary Griggs Burke Foundation, 2015.

On view at The Met Fifth Avenue in Galleries 223–231

Exhibition Objects


My husband and I had always possessed religious works, but after his death [in 1975] I bought more of them. In 1979, it became necessary for the designer, Yasuhide Kobashi, to add another small gallery to the mini-museum in order to display religious objects, sculpture, and painting—both Shinto and Buddhist. Instead of a temple, Kobashi created an atmosphere of calm simplicity in which religious icons would look at home.

—Mary Griggs Burke

In the first two galleries, masterworks of early Japanese devotional paintings and statuary from the Mary Griggs Burke Collection are displayed alongside large sculptures the Met has owned for many years. Meticulously carved Buddhist wood sculptures, often originally gilded or adorned with fine cutgold decoration, represent Buddhas, bodhisattvas (compassionate deities), and guardian figures, in both serene and wrathful forms. Illuminated sutras—with gorgeous frontispieces rendered in gold pigment or with colorful illustrations above the texts—demonstrate the esteem with which the teachings of Buddha were held among members of the palace elite. The act of commissioning works of Buddhist art was believed to help accrue karmic merit.

Shinto, the indigenous religion of Japan, enshrines the sacred power of local deities (kami), which can take the form of humans or natural phenomena, such as mountains, trees, or waterfalls. In its earliest stages, Shinto ("the way of kami") had no icons. The sculptures and painted images of deities were created only in response to the sixth-century introduction, via growing international diplomacy and commerce, of a complex Buddhist iconography from China and Korea.

Selected Artworks

As I spent a good part of my childhood in the woods of northern Wisconsin, I learned to appreciate the changing seasons and to observe the ways of animals and the spirit of growing plants. This expression of the essence of natural things, and man's close harmony with it, made me turn to the paintings by Zen monks of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries with special pleasure.

—Mary Griggs Burke

Zen art, created by painters and calligraphers affiliated with Buddhist monasteries, is characterized by dynamic ink brushwork and the effective use of blank space, a suggestion of the state of metaphysical nothingness. Whether abstracted renderings of landscapes or natural subjects, or boldly brushed lines of poetry, Zen art is also often associated with a visual projection of spontaneity, rebelliousness, eccentricity, and rule breaking. These aspects of Zen-related art, produced from the early medieval period to modern times in Japan, greatly appealed to avant-garde writers, poets, artists, and adherents of counterculture movements in the West in the immediate postwar decades—the same time the Burkes began collecting. Through this lens, Zen practice—even the quest for satori, or enlightenment—was seen as tantamount to artistic discovery.

Several of the painters included in this exhibition pursued artistic paths infused with the principles of Zen, which advocated self-reflection to discover one's own Buddha nature and sought, unlike other sects, mind-to-mind, or master-to-pupil, transfer of spiritual teachings, which did not rely on an immersion in the study of scriptures. Zen practice at its root aimed to give its practitioners a transformative spiritual experience; the related art encapsulated this mind-set.

Selected Artworks

While collectors are not artists, they can participate in such expressive sentiments by sharing their treasures with others in special surroundings. My husband and I found this to be one of the most creative sides of collecting.

—Mary Griggs Burke

Of the more than three hundred works from the Mary Griggs Burke Collection donated in the spring of 2015 to the Met, more than two hundred are paintings. Pictorial art had always remained the focus of Mary Griggs Burke and her husband, Jackson, even as they acquired religious sculptures, tea-related ceramics, and lacquerware to display in ensembles in the mini-museum they created in their Manhattan apartment. In 1963, the Burkes embarked on a future dedicated to the serious collecting of Japanese art by acquiring, from a private Florida collection, more than seventy colorful ukiyo-e paintings showing courtesans of the demimonde (some of which are on view in gallery 231).

While the Burkes were particularly fond of medieval ink paintings by monk-painters affiliated with Zen monasteries (displayed in the gallery to the left), they expanded their interests to embrace works by artists of every major school of painting as well as those by "eccentric" artists who broke from traditional training to establish their own individual styles.

After her husband's death, in 1975, Mrs. Burke continued to build the collection. A special strength of the Burke Collection was the impressive constellation of folding-screen paintings of the sixteenth to the nineteenth century, of which some thirty sets were presented to the Met.

Selected Artworks

The distinction between high art and craft is not so sharply drawn in Japan as in the West. Japanese art is an indivisible whole embracing lacquers, ceramics, paintings, textiles, and much else. The artistic creative force still works at all levels of their lives. This tendency was more evident when I made my first trip to Japan [in 1954].

—Mary Griggs Burke

During the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries—the so-called Momoyama period—Japan underwent a sea change in terms of political and social structures. Powerful warlords imposed peace on and adherence to central authority within provinces long torn by fighting. The imperial capital of Kyoto was completely rebuilt, while, to the east, the military capital of the Tokugawa shoguns was being established in Edo (present-day Tokyo). Amid this frenetic urban rejuvenation, and bolstered by the patronage of a burgeoning merchant class and new samurai elite, arts in every medium flourished, enabling innovative—and often more exuberant—stylistic innovations to arise.

Some aesthetic shifts were informed by renewed encounters with China (especially in painting and calligraphy) and Korea (in pottery) and even exposure to the West and Christian-inspired art. Other developments in the arts were ignited by a reengagement with traditional Japanese literature; the Rinpa school, for instance, can be seen as a revival of Yamato-e, or Japanese-style painting, and archaic court styles of kana calligraphy. Additionally, after a long period of civil war, for the first time Japanese artists attempted to capture scenes of townspeople enjoying simple pleasures of life, and genre painting flourished.

Selected Artworks

At the encouragement of Professor Murase, I had at last read The Tale of Genji. This great and intricate novel, which has had a pervasive effect on Japanese culture, touched me deeply. I became aware of how important both prose and poetry are to the Japanese, and how closely they are bound to the visual arts of painting and calligraphy.

—Mary Griggs Burke

A sensitivity to East Asian literature, both prose and poetry, is at the heart of the Mary Griggs Burke Collection. Among the collection's great strengths are works in every medium that illustrate scenes from traditional Japanese narratives, especially courtly classics that combine amorous intrigue, psychological sophistication, and poetic sensitivity—such as the tenth-century Tales of Ise or the early eleventh-century Tale of Genji. More than thirty paintings on courtly narrative themes entered the Met's holdings through the generosity of the Mary and Jackson Burke Foundation. Other works in the Burke Collection were inspired by The Tale of the Heike, an epic military narrative chronicling medieval battles, or by Noh or Kabuki plays.

Poetry, often accompanied by imaginary portraits of poets inscribed on decorated papers, is another strength of the collection; fine examples of brush writing in elegant styles from the twelfth to the nineteenth century are represented. Chinese poetry (kanshi) cited from great Tang and Song poets or composed by Sinophilic Japanese literati forms an important core of the medieval Zen works and literati paintings.

Selected Artworks

In addition to a new gallery for religious art, Yasuhide Kobashi designed for me a tea room, which serves the purposes of tea, not only the making and drinking of it, but as a place in which to appreciate beautiful tea ceramics by using them.

—Mary Griggs Burke

Tea gatherings and the spaces created for hosting them have played an instrumental role in the display and enjoyment of Japanese art through the centuries. Mary Griggs Burke's own interests in chanoyu, or tea practice, shaped an important part of her collection. The tea room is an intimate space where guests can focus on an ensemble of objects selected by the host. A hanging scroll of a painting or calligraphy, preferably by a Zen monk, hung in the display alcove (tokonoma) helped set the serene mood of the occasion. The tactile surfaces and palpably vibrant quality of ceramics produced for use in a tea gathering also encapsulate one extreme of Japanese aesthetics—that of wabi, which prioritizes unaffected, subdued, and even rustic qualities of rough-hewn tea wares.

Selected Artworks

The factor of luck—being in the right place at the right time—accounts to some degree for the fact that thirty percent of the collection consists of works from two Edo-period schools, Ukiyo-e and Nanga. We had acquired the entire Hart Collection of ukiyo-e in 1963, and a large number of nanga [literati] paintings in 1967 and 1968. Those two categories of paintings make good foils for each other. The robust, colorful, town-oriented ukiyo-e we first admired found their complement in the Chinese-inspired, literary, and nature-celebrating nanga works.

—Mary Griggs Burke

The development of the Nanga, or Literati, school, is yet another manifestation of how Japanese artists were inspired by new trends in pictorial and calligraphic arts in China. Nanga literally means "Southern school" and is a way of referring to artists, often scholar-officials, in China working outside court-sponsored academies who created paintings and calligraphies not as a way to make a living but as a way to share in the delightful experience of artistic exchange. The aesthetic priorities and techniques were transmitted to Japan in the Edo period (1615–1868), primarily though imported woodblock-printed painting manuals and sometimes through direct viewing of Chinese paintings. Subject matter in painting was focused on expressive landscapes or figural images based on Chinese poetry or literary themes. Pictures were often accompanied by titles or poetic inscriptions inscribed in Ming or Qing calligraphic styles.

Japanese literati artists such as Ike Taiga (1723–1776) and Yosa Buson (1716–1783) sold paintings to make a living, since they could not rely on stipends from the Japanese civil service, unlike their Chinese counterparts.

Selected Artworks

Japanese style and beauty first struck me when I saw my mother's kimono—a padded winter one of black silk displaying at the knee a bold design of twisted pine branches covered with snow. I can remember putting it on and letting it trail behind me; I believe a future collector of Japanese art was born then.

—Mary Griggs Burke

The final section of the exhibition highlights sumptuously colored paintings of beauties by artists of the Ukiyo-e school. "Pictures of the floating world" (ukiyo-e) were among the first works acquired by Mary and Jackson Burke when they began collecting Japanese art seriously in 1963—the year they acquired over seventy ukiyo-e paintings from the Frank E. Hart Collection. In order to secure all of their favorite works, they had to purchase the entire lot.

Some of the paintings on display here, however, were acquired separately, including the late seventeenth-century Beauty of the Kanbun Era, which is representative of a type of anonymous painting of a single female figure in gorgeous costume set against a blank background. Such early genre paintings directly anticipated the emergence of deluxe ukiyo-e paintings of beautiful women (bijinga) by artists of the Ukiyo-e school, most of whom also designed affordable single-sheet prints and illustrated books. A special characteristic of ukiyo-e paintings and prints is the meticulous attention given to the details of women's garments, making the works splendid records of the most flamboyant fashions of the day.

Selected Artworks




Basara, Ox (丑) (detail), from six of the twelve divine generals (Jūni shinshō), 14th century. Japanese, Kamakura period (1185–1333). Wood with lacquer, color, gold, and inlaid crystal eyes; H. 19 5/16 in. (49 cm); Base: L. 8 1/2 in. (21.6 cm), W. 6 1/2 in. (16.5 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Mary Griggs Burke Collection, Gift of the Mary and Jackson Burke Foundation, 2015 (2015.300.254a–f)