Ten centuries of art on display at ‘Flowers of the Four Seasons’

FINE ART — “Poppies” by Sakai Doitsu image courtesy of Clark Family Collection

BERKELEY, Calif. — “Flowers of the Four Seasons: Ten Centuries of Art from the Clark Center of Japanese Art and Culture” opened last month at the University of California, Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive. It features 112 art works from late 8th century to 21st century through the eyes of Willard G. Clark, the founder of the Clark Center.

Occupying the three main galleries, this is the biggest collection of Japanese art in the museum’s history. The collection includes beautiful pictures that capture Japanese appreciation of nature such as “Flowers of the Four Seasons” and paintings that portray everyday life of Japanese people. It takes about 90 minutes to go through the entire collection, but the works of art are wisely arranged by themes, such as Buddhist art, the classical literary world, and Japanese humor, to give viewers some guidance on how to look at them.

Viewers are first greeted by a collection of Buddhist art. “Daiitoku Myōō,” the Kamakura period sculpture, represents a six-faced and six-legged Daiitoku Myōō, one of the Five Great Kings of esoteric Buddhism.

“It’s a rare collection,” said Julia White, the museum’s senior curator for Asian Art. According to White, few Daiitoku Myōō survive even in Japan, and it is significant that it still keeps the original form.

The carefully selected collection reflects Clark’s passion for Japanese art.

Born in Hanford, Calif. in 1930, Clark studied architecture at UC Berkeley and animal husbandry at UC Davis in the early 1950s. His first encounter with Japanese art was when he was at naval officer school in Rhode Island. He visited New York and saw the Japanese home that was constructed in the Museum of Modern Art garden. “It blew me away!” said Clark in an interview with Orientations magazine.

Clark began collecting moderately priced pieces by making trips to Japan from Hawai‘i, where he was stationed as an officer in the United States Navy. After he was discharged from the military in 1963, he took over his family’s cattle business in the Central Valley. His business became more successful when he started exporting bull semen overseas, and Clark expanded his collection in consultation with Sherman E. Lee, an American scholar of Asian art.

In 1995 he founded the Clark Center to better protect the artworks and to make them available for public viewing. While the exhibit is located in the Central Valley, and has a rich collection of Japanese art, it has only attracted the relatively small number of 1,000 visitors and scholars. It has, however, traveled to five cities in Japan, including Tokyo and Osaka, where it has been attracting greater numbers of people.

Viewing the Collection

In a lecture hosted by the museum, Timon Screech, a professor in the history of art at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, gave some tips on viewing the collection and context into viewing how artists in the Edo period used different ways to capture reality.

In the Edo period, the Kano School was one of the most prominent and popular art schools in Japan. Screech said some artists eventually became dissatisfied with the Kano School, which emphasized sketching and copying classical works. They abandoned the Kano School and created techniques that are not bound by tradition.

Itō Jakuchū was one of those artists. His “New Year’s Sun” portrays pine trees in a non-traditional way, drawn wildly with a brush so that it is hard to realize they are pine trees.

Another example of the non-traditional style of Japanese art is Soga Shōhaku’s “Zen Monk in Tree.” Shōhaku, sometimes called a madman, turned a serious scene where a well-known Zen monk named Dorin sits on the tree, and a famous Chinese Tang poet Hakkyoi bows before Dorin, into foolishness.

Screech also emphasized the revival of Chinese influence on Japanese art in the late Edo period. Nanga is the work of Japanese poet-painters in the Chinese literati tradition. Nanga was meant to express a personal reaction to nature, usually in terms of landscape.

Yamamoto Baiitsu used a wide variety of brush strokes and ink tones to draw “Landscape with Houses in a Ravine.” He created mountainous landscapes with a river, which never existed in Japan. Baiitsu borrowed the scenery from China.

“Landscape is a vehicle of self-expression. It’s a landscape within the chest,” said Screech, the author of 10 books on the visual culture of the Edo period.

The collection is very educational in tracking the history of Japanese art, but it also keeps viewers engaged in artworks by introducing Clark’s personal charms as a businessman.

Clark, having accumulated his wealth through his bull semen business, collected a lot of bull pictures. Mochizuki Gyokusen’s “Black Bull” delivers a powerful but approachable image of a bull. With “Boy on a Bull,” Ueda Kōchū unexpectedly presents a bull with a boy on his back from a direct frontal angle, making the picture humorous.

The collection also shows Clark’s love for humor in Japanese art, as evidenced in the “Lively Sense of Humor” and “Variety in Everyday Life” sections. Mori Shūhō’s “Frogs in Sumo Match” personifies frogs by engaging them in sumo wrestling. Shūho’s frogs, with their great round bellies, create a humorous impression. Mihata Joryo’s “Young Woman and Boy” portrays two unmatchable subjects in a comical way by paring a standing beauty with a picture of a young boy with bulging eyeballs looking out of a round window.

“Some people might say art should be serious, but they are very nicely drawn. So why not enjoy them,” said White.

“Flowers of the Four Seasons” will be exhibited through Dec. 12, 2010 at University of California, Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, located at 2626 Bancroft Way. The museum is open from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. from Wednesdays to Sundays. Guided tours are also available. For additional information, including the cost of admission, visit www.bampfa.berkeley.edu/visit or call (510) 642-0808.

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