BAMPFA's Japanese art collection began in 1919 with a remarkable donation of more than a thousand woodblock prints from the estate of UC Berkeley Professor of English William Dallam Armes. This exhibition features a selection of these exceptional prints, as well as hanging scroll paintings, screens, lacquerware, and ceramics that have entered the collection over the century since this transformative gift changed the small, mostly regional art collection of the University forever, creating a foundation for what would become BAMPFA’s extensive holdings of Asian art and helping catapult the museum into a new era of international art collecting.
A remarkable group of surimono prints—small, privately published prints made for special occasions and intended as gifts—is on view, for the first time, along with translations of the poetry inscribed on these exceptionally beautiful works. The delicately painted White Swallows by a Waterfall by Okamoto Shuki (1807–1862) demonstrates the Japanese artist’s special connection to the natural world. The grandeur of the impressive Japanese tradition of screen painting is on display in several examples of this format, including Children Playing on an Elephant, attributed to the eighteenth-century painter Nagasawa Rosetsu (1754–1799). In this charming work, young boys line up to climb over a massive, reclining elephant, feeding him tufts of grass and wondering at his enormity. The exhibition also features several fine lacquerware and ceramic pieces that have recently joined the collection.
A powerful calligraphic work by Mokuan Shōtō—a Chan monk who came from China, settled in Japan during the seventeenth century, and helped to found the Obaku Zen sect of Buddhism—is the most recent addition to the collection. It takes its place alongside Armes’s gift and those of many other donors as we celebrate the collection’s first century and look forward to a bright future of collecting Japanese art at BAMPFA.