The current exhibit (June 28-September 22) at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco introduces sixty-four exceptional art treasures, mostly screens and paintings by acclaimed artists from the Momoyama through the Taisho periods (roughly sixteenth through early twentieth centuries). All of the artwork is from Ellison’s Japanese architecturally designed estate in Woodside.
With a retired museum curator as his advisor, Ellison’s collection is extraordinary in vision. The artwork includes Buddhist religious art, humorous illustrations of folk tales, and floral and animal images on screens and in sculpture. Some of the art is being exhibited outside of temples for the first time.
The collection is a rare opportunity to gaze at symbols for immortality (the crane), powerful energy (dragon), enlightenment (elephant), and the ephemeral world (almost any floral image). Some of the paintings and hanging scrolls depict endearing images of animals and insects, representing the belief that rebirth takes many forms: a parade of crickets, ravens who symbolize death, cats and dogs as protective spirits.
I was enchanted by the collection’s freshness and originality. One of my favorites is a six-panel silver screen by Usumi Kiho depicting a single peacock feather and one blue-black raven, simply entitled “Peacock and Raven”. Another painting, by Maruyama Okyo, of a young cat has white and grey fur that almost looks soft enough to touch.
For those interested in early Japanese Buddhism, the ethereal wooden statue of a two-year old Prince Shotoku, is a rare find. Shotoku Taishi is well-known as the first to introduce the religion to a woman–his aunt Empress Suiko–and therefore, considered a supporter of women’s Buddhist practice. This is an extremely unusual and stunning portrait–a young toddler who is not yet a Buddhist leader and almost certainly a sculpture originally belonging to a temple.
This is an exhibit not to be missed. Go see it before it closes on Sunday, September 22.