When Works of Art Change Hands

Given the fact that Japanese and Chinese ancient works of art change hands quite frequently, consideration needs to be given to the works of art by both donors and recipients. As a suitable example, we will introduce the donation of the UEMURA Wado Collection to the Nezu Institute of Fine Arts.

Works of art change hands in search for a place where they can live in peace. These movements, seen from a macroscopic perspective, represent the history of the art object and every institution in possession of the object may well be only a temporary lodging. In Japan, "art galleries" and "museums" were institutionalized in the modern era and are regarded as the most reliable and stable "place" for works of art. In fact, when public museums make a purchase, the purchase price sometimes rises due to the understanding that the work will no longer on the market. This reflects the strong faith that people place in these institutions.

Soon after the end of World War II, many antiques were put on the market. However, art galleries and museums were built one after another and, as major buyers, began to collect those works of art, with their transactions appearing to be stabilize a few years ago. However, under the prolonged recession and excess of new institutions, art museums are facing difficult times and the number of special exhibitions has decreased during the past few years. A new generation of collectors also appeared, and private collections are being donated and/or sold to art museums in rapid succession. There have also been cases in which museums have sold works in their possession in auctions overseas. Now that museums are no longer places for the eternal and peaceful settlement of art objects, Japanese and Chinese antiques are indeed flowing out of their home countries at an alarming rate. Some even consider this massive movement as a third outflow of antiques following those of the late Edo/early Meiji and post World War II periods. I can only pray that they will find a better position in their new homes.

In July of this year (2003), a special exhibition, "The Uemura Wado Collection of Paintings and Calligraphy from Japan and China" (July 29-August 17) was organized at the Nezu Institute of Fine Arts to display the collection donated to the museum. Uemura Wado was born in 1906, and studied under AIZAWA Shunyo, MASUDA Sekka and TANAKA Shinbi. He exerted himself to establish the Society of Calligraphic Art of Japan and established the Seiwa Calligraphic Association. In 2000, he was awarded a Medal with Dark-Blue Ribbon. His main field of expertise was calligraphy of kana (Japanese syllabary) characters but he also excelled in kanji (Chinese) character calligraphy and his collection was extremely broad, including old manuscript fragments, hand-written sutras of the Nara and Heian periods, calligraphy and paintings from the Ming and Qing periods, calligraphy by Confucian scholars of the Edo period, and Yamato-e paintings reproduced toward the end of the Tokugawa period. In particular, the old manuscript fragments and hand-written sutras that constitute the core of the collection are sufficiently rich to tell us how calligraphy developed in the Nara and Heian periods.

Wado donated part of his old manuscript fragment collection to the Tokyo National Museum, and most of his collection, amounting to over 500 pieces, to the Nezu Institute of Fine Arts. I was involved in the research from the preparatory stage of this exhibition, and took part in selecting the objects to be displayed. While doing so, I was surprised anew by the quality and quantity of the collection. Notes by Wado were attached to each of the works, and they taught me a great deal and at the same time directly conveyed his thoughts and feelings about them. Private collections are often supported by the feelings and emotions of the collectors.

Among the Chinese paintings, most of the chosen pieces were from the period between the late Ming and early Qing. Among them, Landscape with Pine Forest by Wang Jianzhang (?-1627-1644-?) caught my attention. He was a painter who was at his height mainly in Fujian Province from the late Ming to early Qing period, and most of his works are either in Japan or have been through Japan. It only took a glance to see that the painting was outstanding and even compared favorably with his most famous works. Leaving aside the historical positioning of this painting, on which I am preparing another paper, I discovered some very interesting facts about its derivation. First, there is a note of authentication on the wood container by IKEJIMA Tadashi (of Sonsendo), explaining that the painting was brought to Japan from Fujian when the Meiji era began, and was the moved from Osaka to Nagasaki. Also group calligraphy (1880) on cloth wrapper by SONE Kendo (1828-1885) and others confirms that the painting was appreciated by literary artists in Nagasaki. Subsequent research led me to finding out that the painting was contained in Toyo bijutsu taikan (Atlas of oriental art) , Vol. 7 and Nanshu meiga-en (Collection of great pictures of Southern schools), Vol. 11 and actually turned out to be a masterpiece of the time. It was once possessed by IWASAKI Hisaya (1865-1955), who served as the third president of the Mitsubishi conglomerate, and was the eldest son of the company's founder, IWASAKI Yataro. After studying at Keio Gijuku, he graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 1891, and in 1894 founded Mitsubishi Goshi Kaisha (Limited Partnership) and became its president. In 1896, he was made a baron. In 1916, he handed over the presidency to his cousin Iwasaki Koyata. Presumably the painting was appreciated among his network of tea lovers. Incidentally, River Flowing into the Ocean and Rising Sun by the same painter (owned by Seikado Bunko Art Museum), which was once in possession of the Iwasaki family, is designated as an Important Cultural Property. The styles of the two paintings are very similar, and it has been demonstrated that it is a remarkable work also noteworthy within the history of modern collections.

It was very gratifying to see the collection of over 500 objects of art, including this painting, being donated to the museum while retaining its nearly complete form. I wish to pay my respects to both the donor and the beneficiary for the courageous decision they made.


Itakura Masaaki

(Associate Professor, The Institute of Oriental Culture) 14 Oct.2003