Press release

Japanese Mandalas on View at Metropolitan Museum through November 29

Exhibition dates: June 18 – November 29, 2009
Location: The Sackler Wing Galleries for the Arts of Japan, 2nd Floor

An impressive group of Japanese mandalas—graphic depictions of the Buddhist universe and its myriad realms and deities—are featured in an exhibition on view at The Metropolitan Museum of Art through November 29. Showcasing more than 60 magnificent works—painting, sculpture, drawing, metalwork, stoneware, textile, and lacquer—drawn from major museums and collections in the United States, Japanese Mandalas: Emanations and Avatars illustrates the exceptional and complex world of Esoteric Buddhist art in Japan. Highlights of the exhibition include a set of monumental 13th-century mandalas on loan from the Brooklyn Museum—this pair was selected by the Japanese government to be conserved in Japan. Displayed in tandem with iconographic drawings that explain the character and placement of the deities, the mandalas introduce viewers to the supreme Buddha Dainichi Nyorai, the principal buddha of Japanese Esoteric Buddhism, and his innumerable emanations and avatars across the Buddhist cosmos.

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

"The Brooklyn mandalas are of a type known as the 'Mandalas of Both Worlds' or 'Ryôkai mandala' and constitute the finest examples of this kind in the United States,"said Sinéad Kehoe, Assistant Curator in the Metropolitan Museum's Department of Asian Art. "Although Indian in origin, the concept of the mandala arrived in Japan from China in the early ninth century. The Chinese prototypes for the first Japanese mandalas have long since vanished, and their form is carefully preserved in Japan alone. At the same time, Japanese mandalas evolved in entirely new directions unique to Esoteric Buddhism as it has been practiced in Japan, often incorporating Shintô elements along the way."

Esoteric Buddhism, called Mikkyô in Japanese, has been the impetus for spectacular artistic developments in Japan since the year 806, when a Japanese monk by the name of Kûkai (774-835) returned from a voyage to China with the now-lost Chinese prototype of the paired cosmic diagrams known as the "Mandalas of Both Worlds." After that point, Japanese religious art and culture exploded in myriad new directions. The original mandalas were copied and used as a powerful tool to spread the teachings of the Shingon ("True Word"), a school of Esoteric Buddhism founded by Kûkai, as well as the Esoteric teachings of the Tendai School founded by Kûkai's fellow monk Saichô (767-822).

The exhibition is organized around three pairs of "Mandalas of Both Worlds" – one from the Muromachi period (1392-1573), consisting entirely of deities represented by Sanskrit letters; a pristine pair by Matsubara Shôgetsu from the Edo period (1615–1868) that once belonged to the powerful Tokugawa Shogunate; and the superb pair dating from the Kamakura period (1185-1333), on loan from Brooklyn Museum. The exhibition also includes an important early Esoteric Buddhist sculpture Tobatsu Bishamonten, a deity isolated from the "Mandalas of Both Worlds" for individual worship, as well as a scroll from the 14th-century illustrated narrative handscroll A Long Tale for an Autumn Night, which tells of the ill-fated love affair between a senior monk and a beautiful novice.

The Museum will offer an array of educational programs in conjunction with the exhibition, including "Under the Gaze of the Stars: Astral Manuals in Medieval Japan," a lecture by Bernard Faure, Kao Professor in Japanese Religion, Columbia University (November 7), and "Collectors and Collections," a panel discussion with collectors Sylvan Barnet and William Burto, moderated by Sinéad Kehoe (November 14).

The lenders to the exhibition are: Sylvan Barnet and William Burto Collection; the Brooklyn Museum; Mary and Jackson Burke Foundation; Mary Griggs Burke; Alvin Friedman-Kien and Ryo Toyonaga Collection; the Princeton University Art Museum; and John C. Weber Collection.

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During the course of the Japanese Mandalas exhibition, two other installations take place concurrently in The Sackler Wing Galleries for the Arts of Japan.

The first installation, Astonishing Silhouettes: Western Fashion in 19th-Century Japanese Prints, explores the illustration of Western dress by Japanese ukiyo-e print artists in the latter half of the 19th century, when Japan encountered Western fashion. The installation focuses on Yokohama prints from the early 1860s showing colorful Japanese renditions of Westerners in Western dress. The installation also displays Meiji prints of the 1880s depicting members of the Japanese elite in Western clothing, which they adopted along with other elements of Western culture. A number of 19th-century French fashion illustrations and an American dress from the 1880s are shown for comparison.

Brilliantly executed Yokohama prints by ukiyo-e artists such as Gountei Sadahide (active ca. 1807-1873), Utagawa Yoshitora (active ca. 1850-1880), and Utagawa Yoshikazu (active ca. 1850-1870) are on view. A striking American dress with an emphatic bustle extending from an elongated waist is displayed to embody the fashion silhouette of the 1880s. Works in the installation are drawn from the collections of the Museum's Asian Art Department, Costume Institute, and Department of Drawings and Prints. The exhibition puts on view for the first time the Museum's holdings in Yokohama prints from the collection of William S. Lieberman (1923–2005), former chairman of the Museum's Department of Modern Art.

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The second installation is a selection of masterworks by Shibata Zeshin (1807-1891) and his contemporaries. A virtuoso in lacquer painting, Zeshin was one of the few Japanese artists of the late 19th century who was recognized in the West. A counterpoint to such Meiji print artists as Toyohara Chikanobu (1838 - 1912), whose most famous work focused on elites in Western dress (an example that is included in the Astonishing Silhouettes installation), Zeshin's work captures the spirit of the pastimes of the commoners of the city of Edo as it was becoming the modern-day capital of Tokyo under the new Meiji regime. The installation includes Autumn Grasses in Moonlight (ca. 1872-91), one of Zeshin's finest screen paintings, and a writing box with design of a gourd with butterflies (1886), a masterpiece demonstrating the artist's technical prowess.

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Japanese Mandalas: Emanations and Avatars is organized by Sinéad Kehoe with the assistance of Joyce Denney, Assistant Curator, and Masako Watanabe, Senior Research Associate, both of the Museum's Asian Art Department.

Astonishing Silhouettes: Western Fashion in 19th-Century Japanese Prints is organized by Joyce Denney and Masako Watanabe, with the assistance of Sinéad Kehoe; Jan Reeder, Consulting Curator in The Costume Institute; and Cora Michael, Assistant Curator in the Department of Drawings and Prints.

Shibata Zeshin is organized by Mami Hatayama, Jane and Morgan Whitney Fellow, Department of Asian Art.

Japanese Mandalas: Emanations and Avatars is featured on the Museum's website (

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June 24, 2009

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