A large, imposing vase stands before you in the UMMA”s Japanese Gallery. The quality of its structure, vibrancy of its colors, and intricacy of its details instill a sense of wonderment in you. Decorated with finches and apple blossom petals, this vase is truly a remarkable piece of art.
This vase, like every piece of art in the museum”s Asian galleries, is a craftsman”s labor of love. The UMMA has filled a relatively small amount of space with dozens of these masterpieces, from a number of time periods and a number of nations.
The Japanese Gallery, in particular, is populated with woodblock prints, hanging scrolls, swords, armor, and pottery. Tosa Mitsuoki”s “Portrait of a Poetess” is what some might call a traditional scroll from the Edo period. It shows a court lady waiting for her lover to return, symbolized by a small dangling spider. But her face is porcelain and expressionlessthe viewer is left to determine her thoughts.
Many of the pictures in both the Chinese and Japanese galleries tell a story: of a journey, of a struggle, or forbidden love. In Goshun Matsumura”s “The Road to Shu,” we see a group of lonely travelers plodding through the snow. The level of detail in the trees, the individual branches and troughs of snow, is impressive in itself. The brush strokes are tiny and preciseit”s as if the artist used a needle to place individual drops of paint on the scroll.
In a glass case are some swords and sheaths from the Japanese medieval period to the Edo period, which lasted from 1615 to 1868. The swords look far from utilitarian, and when viewed next to the elaborate design of the Japanese armor, one can imagine how imposing a threat they were on the battlefield.
The Edo period is also responsible for some fantastic woodblock prints, as evidenced in Hokusai”s most popular series, “Thirty-Six Views of Mt. Fuji.” Hokusai, one of Japan”s most renowned artists, depicts fisherman and sailors in their everyday tasks, but he does so with an extraordinary eye for scale. The waves in “Kaijikazawa in Kai Province” are larger than the fisherman himself: threatening monstrosities of blue and white, enveloping the sea before them.
The Chinese gallery features some spectacular bronzes from the Shang dynasty, which lasted from 1500 to 1000 b.c. Highly-skilled metalworkers produced these bronzes, which were used for sacrificial and religious purposes, and were also considered to be the finest in the world. Bronze itself was a highly prized material at the time, and it bestowed a sense of wealth and status to the owner.
Many of these bronzes have a glazed-over quality to them. With the passage of time, each has gained an incandescent glow, and if viewed in the proper light, they reveal a wide spectrum of colors.
Also notable in the Chinese gallery are the tomb ceramics from the Han dynasty. These pieces, which include a pond basin, a mill, four-story pagodas, and a pigpen, were originally covered in a green lead glaze. Over 2000 years of salts in the clay have leaked into the glaze, giving them turquoise accents and a rusted-over look.
Just outside the Chinese gallery”s door is a collection of snuff bottles from various artists. Each is only the size of a salt shaker, yet they contain some of the most complex patterns and pictures I”ve ever seen. Made of ivory, jade, lapis lazuli, glass, or porcelain, these bottles contained powdered tobacco and spices, and were worn proudly around the belt of the owner.
The most impressive piece in this collection is not the most elaborate, or gaudy, or inspirational. “The Small Cloud Dwelling,” by Lu Hui, is a simple landscape on a scroll: a large estate with a garden, paths, and waterways. But the picture does one thingit makes us wish we could escape to the calm serenity of the Chinese countryside. Although we cannot pack our bags and go, the University of Michigan Museum of Art has brought all of these incredible things to us. The journey is worthwhile, and it”s right on campus.