5,000 years of East Asian art in one conversation

Fuji From The Platform Of Sasayedo, by 19th-century Japanese artist Hokusai Katsushika.
Fuji From The Platform Of Sasayedo, by 19th-century Japanese artist Hokusai Katsushika. PHOTO: BROOKLYN MUSUEM/INSTAGRAM

NEW YORK • Redesigning an American museum's Asian wing is no mean feat.

How to convey the very real throughlines that make terms as broad as "Chinese art" and "Japanese art" meaningful, while also doing justice to the staggering variety of these ancient and hugely populous cultures?

And what if you are also, like every other museum, under pressure to demonstrate the relevance of your antique artefacts to the present moment?

The Brooklyn Museum in New York City, a leading collector of Asian art for more than a century, satisfies these thorny curatorial problems about as well as anyone could in the virtuosic re-installation of its Japanese and Chinese exhibits.

Arts Of Korea, with a fascinating array of stark, monochrome ceramics, including an 800-year-old sea-green cup with a scalloped rim, opened in 2017. Sections on South Asian, Southeast Asian, Buddhist, and Himalayan art are still to come.

Contemporary pieces, including some of the 50 paintings and sculptures by Chinese or Chinese-descended artists the museum has acquired in the last five years, are now integrated into brisk historical surveys, while a specially commissioned work by Chinese artist Xu Bing, a curious mash-up of Chinese calligraphy and the Roman alphabet, occupies its own room.

Not all this contemporary work is equally strong. But altogether the curators have succeeded in pulling five millenniums of art into a single, thrilling conversation.


One of the enduring preoccupations of Chinese visual culture is a fascination with the inherent formal qualities of ink and paper.

Chinese artist Yang Jiechang's black-on-black 100 Layers Of Ink (1994), a glossy drawing of a crinkled monolith made by saturating rice paper with ink until it buckled, could hold its own in a gallery of post-war American or European abstraction.

But Wang Tiande's 2017 ink painting, Map Of Distant Snowy Mountain Peaks, a precise vertical landscape marked with delicate incense burns, reminds one that the contemporary Western division between abstract and figurative does not reach around the globe.


Near the new acquisitions, a rapid parade of antique pots and bowls conjures a civilisation that has passed through unparalleled heights of luxury without ever shedding the earthier tastes of its prehistory.

Black and white stoneware from the Song Dynasty (960 to 1279) is about as elegant as a man-made object can get, while a bronze wine vessel in the shape of a goose, dating back two millennia to the Han Dynasty (206BC to AD220), has an irresistible burlesque charm.

These strands of elegance and baroque whimsy converge in a 14th-century, blue-and-white wine jar discovered in a collector's Long Island garage in 1952.

Around its immaculately detailed, exuberantly bulbous surface swim a whitefish, a mackerel, a freshwater perch and a carp - four fish whose Chinese names are homophones for a phrase meaning "honest and incorruptible".


The focus on surfaces and colours evokes the delicacy and impeccable balance of the Japanese aesthetic.

A small but well-considered display of indigenous Ainu art from Hokkaido, including a patterned robe, heavy bead necklaces and incised spatulas, is at once contrast and complement.

Strolling courtesans, Mount Fuji and a popular actor crossing his eyes appear in woodblock prints by leading 18th-and 19th-century artists: Utamaro Kitagawa, Sharaku Toshusai and Hokusai Katsushika. An exquisitely painted fish net stretches across a gilded screen from around 1610.


A simple pot, from 4,000 to 5,000 years ago during the Jomon ("cord mark") period, gestures at the extremely long history of Japanese clay.

But the highlight of the section, if not of the whole new wing, is a vitrine of contemporary ceramics. An almond-shaped vase by potter Shuhei Fujioka, from 2013, in rough orange Iga ware with ash glaze, is stunning; and ceramist Chieko Katsumata's giant, crushed-porcelain-covered sea anemone from 2011, is unforgettable.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 31, 2019, with the headline '5,000 years of East Asian art in one conversation'. Print Edition | Subscribe