Curator Joan Cummins speaks to NYC-ARTS about some of the works on display in the Arts of Japan gallery at Brooklyn Museum. The objects on view trace over 2,000 years of innovation in Japanese art, including Buddhist temple sculptures, paintings, textiles and woodblock prints. The gallery also includes ceramics that reveal Japan’s 10,000-year history of craftmanship in this medium.

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Good evening, and welcome to 'NYC-Arts.'

I'm Paula Zahn at the Tisch WNET Studios at Lincoln Center.

We'll begin our program tonight with a trip to the Brooklyn Museum to visit its newly renovated Arts of Japan gallery.

The objects on view trace over 2,000 years of innovation in Japanese art, including Buddhist temple sculptures, paintings, textiles, and woodblock prints.

Also on view are ceramics that reveal Japan's 10,000 year history of craftsmanship in this medium.

Here's a look now at some of the highlights of this exhibition.


We've been closed for about six years, and we are so excited to finally bring out these galleries with all of our beautiful treasures and to tell new and interesting stories that we've never told with the collection before.

The Brooklyn Museum is quite unusual in its large holdings of material from the Ainu culture of Northern Japan.

We are very fortunate to have roughly 1,000 artifacts in the collection from the Ainu people, and that ranges from carved wood objects to personal ornaments to costumes, what they actually wore usually in a ceremonial setting.

And we have a number of robes from the Ainu people that were probably special occasion attire.

Most of the robes made by the Ainu costume makers were made of an indigenous fabric called attush, which was made of bark cloth.

And it has a texture kind of like burlap.

The robe that we're showing right now is unusual because it's made entirely of cotton.

And cotton was something that they had to trade for because they couldn't grow cotton up in the northern climes of Hokkaido Island.

So cotton as a trade good would have been a luxury item.

The robes that were made entirely of cotton were very much status objects.

This wonderful oversized green head of a Buddhist guardian figure dates from the 1200s, from the Kamakura period, which is a moment when sculpture in Japan became much livelier, much more expressive.

The head is much larger than life-size and would have stood atop a figure about 12 feet high.

And it would have been one of four figures marking the four corners of a platform around an even larger seated Buddha at the center.

And they would have been really dramatic figures in the dark, sort of dim light of the temple.

You would have looked way up toward the ceiling and seen the figures' glinting eyes and white teeth, and they would have been quite intimidating and quite dramatic.

The eyes are, in fact, made out of rock crystal that's been painted on the reverse and then inserted into the wood head.

So a fierce figure like this to a Western audience often can be mistaken for a demonic or evil presence.

But in fact, in this Buddhist tradition, these were good guys.

They're fierce, but they're on our side.

They are fighting for the right things.

One of the great highlights in the new gallery is a pair of folding screens that date from about 1610.

These were made for the interior of a castle, and they have largely gold backgrounds which would have helped to reflect light in the dark interior of the castle and made the room sort of more warm and glowing.

The theme of these two folding screens is drying fishnets, which is not something that we in the modern world see a lot of.

But back in the days when fish nets were made of natural materials, there was concern that they would get moldy.

And of course, if you're a fisherman, you'd need to throw them.

So you need your fishing net to be lighter, not so wet.

So it was a common sight in fishing villages throughout the world to see nets hanging out to dry.

And that was considered extremely scenic, picturesque by artists and poets in East Asia.

And so they became a famous kind of romantic trope that you see over and over again in East-Asian art.

The fishing nets are, on the surface, the subject matter of the screen.

But as you look carefully at the screen, we see that it also represents the four seasons.

So we're going to read it from right to left, which is how Japanese is read.

So if you start at the far right end, you see that there are grasses growing around the fishing nets, and they're relatively short.

Then as you move to the left, you have taller grasses.

So you've gone from spring to summer.

The next screen, the grasses are a little bit brown around the edges, and they've gone to seed.

That's fall.

And then in the far left, we have grasses that are completely desiccated and dusted with a light dusting of snow.

And that's winter.

The Brooklyn Museum houses a wonderful collection of Japanese prints, many of which have not been out on view in decades.

Now, this is from the same series as 'The Great Wave,' the image by the great Japanese print designer Hokusai.

And it's a series that focuses on Mount Fuji.

The mountain is so large that you can have sunny blue skies on one side of the mountain and thunderstorms on the other side.

And that is, in fact, what we're seeing here -- lightning and dark clouds on the front, while there are blue skies off in the distance.

The Brooklyn Museum's Arts of Japan gallery is a space that we will be changing many times over the course of the next several years in order to show more and more of our treasures.

And we encourage people to come in and make discoveries of their own.