The Idea of a Collection (Japanese Buddhism at the Museum of Fine Arts) (Boston)


The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston is relatively small compared to the behemoths further south. But they pack a lot into its space. I slipped away from the AJS conference the other week to take a peek, particularly to see their collection of Japanese Buddhist art. Like any good collection, it’s organized around an idea and a story. The look is medieval, but it’s really modern, by which maybe I mean very self-conscious.

Years ago, I used to teach Okakura Kakuzo’s Book of Tea in an introductory level course I teach on Religion and Art. Born in 1863, Okakara was a minor figure in turn of the century American aestheticism. He had some rich Boston friends whom I think he met during their sojourn in Japan. To feed the monks, the monastaries put on a fire sale when the Japanese government cut funds to them (during the Meiji Restoration?). Kakuzo basically picked out this, this, and this, and this, that is to say the best art around for his friends, which they bought and shipped back to Boston.


The museum is very proud of this particular collection and its peculiar provenance. Kakuzo is mentioned throughout the Japanese galleries, his name and image presiding over the collection like a patron saint. I’ve seen a small share of Japanese art, mostly at the Met. But this stuff is extraordinary, I think because it’s so big and there’s so much of it. It might also be the wood construction of the objects themselves and the rooms in which they are set.

Torn out from their organic place in time and place, these figures have been re-aggregated in the artificial confines of these museum rooms, smartly designed by expert curators. They make a strong impression. Big and almost hulking wooden, these religious sculptures fill up a lot of physical and mental space.




About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics.
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