Ancient grasses are the medium through which master craftsmen have made eye-popping, intricate statements, as evidenced in the Metropolitan’s exhibition, Japanese Bamboo Art: The Abbey Collection, running until February 4.
The show opens with a dynamic, undulating tiger-bamboo sculpture installation by Tanabe Chikuunsai IV, a modernist descended, trained, and influenced by three previous generations of acclaimed Japanese bamboo innovators.
In fact, families passing on the secrets and traditions in three different regions of Japan is a featured theme of the show. In many cases, work by fathers and sons is shown side-by-side, such as the intricate works by Tanabe’s own great-grandfather and grandfather, and the stunning sculptures by Honma Hideaki and his father, Honma Kazuaki.
The show showcases contemporary and 20th-century bamboo art from the Abbey Collection (which will eventually be given to the Met) alongside 19th-century pieces collected and donated to the Met in different eras.
For example, the Met received a bonanza of Asian art from Tiffany’s artistic director of silver, Edward Moore – over 80 textiles, bamboo baskets, metal work, and ceramics – from his overseas journeys in the 1860s and 1870s.
Beautiful gold-and-lacquered bamboo pieces that he collected are displayed in this show, alongside kimonos, painted screens, and netsuke-toggled containers featuring images of bamboo growing wild.
There’s also a unique bamboo and rattan bowler hat from the 1880s, courtesy of the Abby Collection, which injects a bit of the “Pacific Overtures” feel to the show, demonstrating how Western influences began to creep into Japan and push artists, such as Shokosai, to use traditional materials in contemporary life. In this case, snappy items sported by fashionable celebrities.
Despite the centuries in which craftsmen shaped large and small specimens of some of the more than 600 species of these grasses, bamboo work remained classified as “craft” versus “art.”
By 1929, however, the up-and-coming generation of bamboo innovators finally accomplished what their artistic ancestors had not – full recognition by the Japanese art hierarchy that their creations were on a par with painting, other types of sculpture, and fashion.
An example is Sakaguchi Sounsai’s fruit tray, one of the first pieces of bamboo works accepted into a government-organized national art exhibition. Kudos to the Abbey Collection and the Met for showing how Japanese artists took a humble plant and made it blossom into a dramatic, rich, intricate statement reflecting modern times.
To get an idea of the skill involved in transforming these natural materials, watch this time-lapse video of The Gate, the dynamic, undulating installation dominating the show’s entrance, created by a team led by bamboo artist Tanabe Chikuunsai IV.
And listen to Hiroshi Sugimoto, the famed photographer, looks at Tosa Mitsunobu’s 15th-century Bamboo in the Four Seasons screen, also included in this show at the Met, describing how a two-dimensional work brilliantly uses nature to convey the passage of time.