Originally Published: July 14, 2017 6 a.m.
NEW YORK — Bamboo is getting attention these days as a versatile and sustainable material for housewares, so the timing is good for a Metropolitan Museum of Art exhibit that explores Japan’s ancient craft of basketry.
“Japanese Bamboo Art: The Abbey Collection” is devoted to masterworks, including a half dozen works by two artists designated as Living National Treasures in Japan. To highlight the works’ virtuosity and context, they have been displayed alongside paintings, ceramics, bronzes, kimonos and other pieces from different genres.
The exhibit also explores other traditional Japanese arts that are entwined with bamboo basketry, such as ikebana flower arranging and tea ceremony. Bamboo is so central to Japanese culture that the Japanese and Chinese character for bamboo is part of over a thousand other characters, including those for many items traditionally made of bamboo, such as flutes, writing brushes, boxes and baskets.
The Met’s show, organized by Monika Bincsik, assistant curator in the department of Asian art, tells the story of bamboo through almost 100 works dating from the late 19th century to the present. It focuses on the refined beauty and technical complexity of Japanese basketry. The exhibit will remain on view through Feb. 4, 2018.
Although the oldest Japanese baskets date to the 700s and were mainly used as offering trays and holders for lotus petals, there was little focus on Japanese bamboo art in the Western world until relatively recently, Bincsik says. Most of the works featured in this show are taken from the Diane and Arthur Abbey Collection, and most have never before been shown to the public. More than 70 of the works exhibited were recently promised as gifts to the Met.
The show opens with a dramatically curvaceous floor-to-ceiling sculpture by master craftsman Tanabe Chikuunsay IV. With its voluptuous shape, the site-specific piece is woven out of rare tiger bamboo, which is mottled with dark spots.
The introductory section shows how bamboo was used for hundreds of years for everyday utensils as well as refined containers. It was a craft generally honed by specific families, with expertise handed down from one generation to the next. Some leading bamboo artisans created their own schools, many still active today.
But it was not until the late 19th century, the exhibit explains, that bamboo craftsmanship began to be recognized as, first, a veritable Japanese decorative art and, later, as a bona fide art form. Later masters such as Iizuka Rokansai created innovative works that were the foundation for contemporary bamboo art.
The show includes textiles passed from bamboo basketry mentors to their students as a sort of diploma, or graduation gift, signaling an apprentice’s elevation to the rank of skilled craftsman. These precious textiles were passed down time and again over generations.
Most of the exhibit is organized geographically into three major Japanese regions; Kansai (mainly Kyoto and Osaka), Kanto (mainly Tokyo) and the southern area of Kyushu.
Highlights include “Basket for Transporting Tea Ceremony Utensils,” made in the late 1800s by Hayawaka Shokosai I. He is believed to be the first bamboo craftsman to sign his work, paving the way for increased recognition of the works of individual masters.
“Moon reflected on Water” was made in 1929 by Sakaguchi Sounsai. It was the first bamboo work accepted into a government-sponsored art exhibition, that year.
Another major work is “Offering or fruit tray with intersecting circles design,” made in about 1947 from smoked timber bamboo by Shono Shounsai, who in 1967 become the first Living National Treasure of bamboo art.
There are baskets that incorporate ancient arrows, still revealing their red or black lacquer. A vase called “Dragon in Clouds” by Iizuka Shokansai is twisted out of a single stick of bamboo. Another work, “Woman,” made in 2004 by Nagakura Ken’ichi, is also formed from a single stick of bamboo, and resembles a sculpture by Giacometti.
One takeaway from the show is that the possibilities of bamboo may turn out to be as vast and limitless as the form is ancient.
The exhibit will not travel beyond New York, but is accompanied by a slim but detailed publication, “Japanese Bamboo Art: The Abbey Collection,” with text by Bincsik and photos (Metropolitan Museum of Art, Bulletin, Spring 2017).