Japanese Art Galleries at the Art Institute

Victor M. Cassidy

New Acquisition, "Head of a Warrior," 6th century AD

Most people, when they visit the Art Institute of Chicago, head straight to the Modern Wing or the Impressionists. Rarely do they start with the Japanese art galleries. Often as not, they just walk right by.

Japanese art makes us work. It delivers none of the thrilling colors that we associate with Impressionism. We must read long labels to understand much of the art because we don’t know Japanese religion, culture, or history. Contemporary art is so much easier.

Do the work and you’ll be rewarded. The Japanese art galleries are filled with a tremendous variety of artworks from all times in that nation’s history—artifacts, religious statuary, tea ceremony wares, scroll paintings, ceramics, prints, and much more. You’ll need two or three long visits to absorb everything—and by then the curators will have replaced several pieces with others that are equally compelling.

Ancient is Newest

In September of 2010, the Art Institute reopened the Japanese art galleries following nine months of renovations preceded by roughly two years of acquisitions and intense preparation.  Janice Katz, Roger L. Weston Associate Curator of Japanese Art, took responsibility for this project, which involved expanding the collection backward in time and enlarging the Japanese Galleries by 55 percent to 6,500 square feet.

“The Art Institute owns roughly 21,000 Japanese objects–16,000 prints, 2,000 printed books, and 3,000 paintings and sculptures,” Katz told us. “We’re strongest in the 17th through the 19th centuries, but we’ve recently acquired important ancient objects. Some of the oldest pottery in the world has been found in Japan.”

The ancient pieces date from the Jōmon Period (12,500-300 BC) when many Japanese were hunter-gatherers and some lived in settlements, making pottery production a possibility. Potters made Jōmon work for practical and ceremonial use, but could not resist decorating it. One of the first pieces we see as we enter the new Japanese Galleries is the earthenware Jar with Handles (ca. 2,000 BC). The rim and handles are tendril-like while the surface decoration was made by pressing cord into the soft clay before firing. Next to it is an oddly-shaped Deep Pot (2000/1000 BC) made of tan-colored clay with areas of transparent black, presumably caused by firing. Incised lines and cord-pressed decoration cover roughly two-thirds of its surface. A Female Figurine with Topknot (1000/300 BC) is a small, elaborately-dressed woman. Jōmon potters made many such figural works, which historians believe were used in rituals and then thrown away.

16th century Negoro Hot Water Pot

Katz explains that the Art Institute had two or three “displayable” ancient objects before she started updating the Japanese Galleries. She buys art by locating something that fills gaps in the collection, investigating it very carefully (she had older works x-rayed to determine how much restoration has been done), and then raising money from Art Institute patrons. Some of the new acquisitions come from the collections of Japanese artists.

One of the most rewarding of these “new” works is a 6th century AD Head of a Warrior that was excavated from the burial mound of an emperor or chieftain. The head was originally attached to a body and wore armor or carried a weapon. The warrior’s features are serious with firmly closed lips that suggest a man of action rather than words.

The Japanese called such tomb figurines haniwa and made them to represent males, females, animals, and houses.  One appealing haniwa is the 6th century Hen, which was modeled by hand or with simple tools and given a cylindrical base. Coarse and vigorous, Hen is so full of life that we almost expect it to cluck.

Mobbed by Rug Rats

Some cases contain religious works, including carvings of ferocious deities that protect Buddhism and Buddhists from evil and error. These are schoolchild favorites and if you visit the Japanese art galleries in the morning, you may suddenly find yourself mobbed, as I was, by excited rug rats.


Suzuki Kiitsu, "Flowers of Autumn and Winter," 19th century

One of the most fearsome of these works is Nakabayashi Gennai’s Gozanze Myo-o (1680), a wooden sculpture that depicts Gozanze Myo-o, a four-faced multi-limbed deity who tramples Daijizaiten and his consort Uma, the gods of unruly human passion. This work comes from an ensemble of five sculptures that were arranged inside the sanctuary of an Esoteric Buddhist temple. Together the five sculptures “symbolize the rage against all threats to Buddhism and all obstacles to enlightenment,” Katz told us.


The more restful Seated Bodhisattva (c. 775) is meant to be prayed to like a Christian icon. (A bodhisattva is a compassionate person who postpones Buddha hood to help save others.) Many Japanese Buddhists have a small altar in their home. They light incense, open up the altar, and pray to bodhisattvas.

Negoro Lacquer ware—pitchers, bowls, and more–was produced in quantity during the Muromachi period (1333-1573). Intended for daily use in temples and the home, this wondrous stuff has an undercoating of black and a top layer of crimson which wears away during use to expose the black beneath. The Art Institute calls the 16th century Negoro Hot Water Pot an “object of extreme elegance” and states that the shape of its handle, lid, and foot can be traced back to Chinese models.


Nakamura Daizaburo, "Heron Maiden," 1920/25

Art collecting began in Japan during the 17th century with tea ceremony items. Aesthetes of the day displayed their collections on staggered shelves such as those we see replicated in the Japanese art galleries. Katz told us that some cups in the tea ceremony may look clumsy, but were designed to fit the hand comfortably and valued for the way they performed in use.


Paintings and Decorative Arts

Large, rectangular, and equipped with free-standing display cases in addition to wall cases, Gallery 108 shows paintings and decorative art from the 17th century to the 1930s. In contrast to the earlier practical or religious objects, these are works of art and look like what we expect Japanese art to be.

Suzuki Kiitsu’s 19th century Morning Glories is a two-panel screen with imagery rendered in ink, colors, and gold on paper. The morning glories in this piece burst out of its pictorial borders, which are in the shape of an oversized fan.

Tetsunao’s Insect-Cage Incense Burner (late 19th/early 20th century) is a meticulously-crafted piece whose body is made of an unusual bluish-black copper-gold alloy that is carved with autumnal flowers and grasses and images of gourds. Set into this is a silver cage, complete with a sliding door on the side in imitation of an actual insect cage. Inside the cage sit three metal crickets atop autumnal plants. The crickets are made with extreme delicacy at life scale.

“Early metalworkers were sword smiths,” said Katz, “but they began to make objects like this incense burner as demand for swords shrank in the late 19th century. They developed alloys and invented inlay tools that were unknown in the West.”


Kato Tsubusa, "Square Bowl," 2005

Children who visit Gallery 108 might be fascinated the beautifully-detailed wrought iron Articulated Dragon (ca. 1880). Less than a foot long, this creature seems ready to exhale smoke and fire at any moment. Others might prefer Ikeda Terukata’s Spring (ca. 1911), a scroll painting of the artist’s wife dressed in a kimono and standing beneath a cherry tree. Possibly suggesting that the artist knew European art of his day, this painting is softer and sweeter than most Japanese images of similar subject matter.


The Ando Room

In 1989, the Art Institute commissioned Tadao Ando, the architect, to design a 1,689 sq. ft. gallery for the display of Japanese screens. Ando produced a meditative, dark-floored space dominated by 16 one-foot-square columns made of dark-stained oak. The walls of this room are glass cases where the Art Institute places a new exhibit every six months. The current show is contemporary Japanese ceramics. Baskets come next.

Made of white porcelain clay with pale blue glaze, Kato Tsubusa’s Square Bowl (2005) has its corners pulled to thin points and its walls grooved by the artist’s fingers. According to Katz, Square Bowl results from “many years of experimentation with beautiful, yet unforgiving materials,” which the artist forcefully manipulates. The result is a hard, cold ceramic, more awesome than inviting, but unlike anything we’ve ever seen before.


Higashida Shigemasa, "Oribe-ware Box," 2002

Another star piece is Higashida Shigemasa’s Oribe-Ware Box (2002) whose form and surface decoration suggest landscape. According to Katz, this asymmetrical box is made from several slabs of clay, some smooth and some coarse, and colored with a 17th century olive-green glaze called Oribe.


Thank You, Thank You

We would not have these Japanese Galleries but for the remarkable and continuing generosity of the Art Institute’s patrons. The wing is named after Roger L. and Pamela Weston, who financed it. Their names are prominent among the people who donated millions for the objects that the public now enjoys. Aware that this list is incomplete, we thank Alyce and Edwin DeCosta, George and Roberta Mann, Russell Tyson, Mr. and Mrs. Nathan V. Hammer, and Pamela Crutchfield. We will thank the Buckingham family in a separate article about the Buckingham Gallery where Japanese prints are shown.

The Art Institute of Chicago is open Monday–Wednesday, 10:30–5:00; Thursday, 10:30–8:00  and Friday–Sunday, 10:30–5:00 at 111 South Michigan Avenue, Chicago.