Media only: Brenda Kean Tabor: 202.633.0523
Barbara Kram: 202.633.0520
Public only: 202.633.1000
Media Preview:”A Conversation with the Collectors,” Tuesday, March 23 at 2 p.m. Call 202.633.0519 to RSVP

This spring and early summer, the Sackler Gallery’s series of exhibitions showcasing important American collections of Japanese art highlights works of Buddhist and Shinto inspired calligraphy and painting from the Sylvan Barnet and William Burto collection. Professors of English literature and theater, Barnet and Burto neither read nor spoke Japanese and had no particular interest in Japanese calligraphy until the moment in the early 1960s that they were struck by the beauty of an 18th century work by the Japanese Buddhist monk and scholar Jiun Onko (1718–1804). Bowled over by the scroll’s pleasing lines, they bought it—and so began what they call their ‘delightful madness,’ and a collection that is considered to be one of the finest in the west.

The 56 works on view through July 18 also include several related objects from the Freer and Sackler Gallery collections. Featured in the exhibition is a miniature figure of the Buddha at Birth—one of the earliest and most important Japanese gilt bronze images from the 7th century—as well as richly illuminated sutra texts, boldly expressive Zen Buddhist maxims rendered in ink monochrome, portraits of Zen masters and mandala paintings; three-dimensional ritual objects and earthenware temple roof tiles. Ranging in date from the eighth through the 19th century, all illustrate the intimate relationships among calligraphy, painting, objects, and faith transmission within the Japanese Buddhist and Shinto traditions. Translations of selected texts are provided.

The sixth century introduction of Buddhism to Japan from China spurred a rapid adoption of the Chinese language and its complex, brush-written script, as texts recording the Buddha’s teachings known as “sutras” were copied and distributed to new temples. Originally executed in scroll form, changes in the aesthetic appreciation of calligraphy have led to the carefully selected and lavish remounting of significant individual sections of scrolls on view.

During the Nara period (710–794) many sutras were handwritten by members of huge scriptoria in a regular format of easily legible square characters. Esoteric Buddhism, emphasizing mystical and ritual practices, became the dominant system of Buddhist belief during the late Nara and Heian periods (794–1185) and lavish sutras were created on paper that had been dyed a range of colors from light yellow to a deep lapis-colored indigo blue or purple and inscribed with text written in gold, silver and other precious materials. Esoteric Buddism also spurred the production of distinctively Japanese mandalas, including the important “Womb World Mandala” on view.

Pure Land Buddhism spread more widely during the early Kamakura period (1185–1333) prompting the execution of luxurious scrolls that were scattered with gold and silver foil in random patterns. Among the rare examples of ornamentation on view is the polychrome frontispiece featuring ceremonial dancers on a scroll from the set of Lotus Sutra scrolls known as the “Motochika” Sutras. Two “Dream Records” written and painted by the monk Myoe Koben (1173–1232) founder of the Kozanji temple and a master of Kegon school and Esoteric practices, demonstrate both the more fluid and relaxed calligraphic style that developed during this period, and the unique blending of Buddhist and native ideas in Japanese religious life.

Zen Buddhism focusing on the attainment of enlightenment through meditation, was brought to Japan by Chinese-trained monks during the late 12th–13th centuries. Calligraphy known as “bokuseki” (ink traces) painted by Zen Buddhist masters was revered as a direct communication of their spirituality, intellect, and character. Works like the “Poem on the Theme of Snow” by Muso Soseki (1275–1351) on view, were highly appreciated for their aesthetic qualities as well as for their embodiment of the writer’s wisdom and spiritual power. Chinso portraits of Chinese Zen Buddhist monks, such as the portrait of Shun’oku Myoha (1311–1388) on view, illustrate a formal Chinese style of commemorative portraiture that was adopted in order to recall the of Zen master’s presence at memorial or other ceremonies.

During the Edo period (1615–1868) Chinese monks emigrating to escape the disorder at the end of the Ming dynasty brought the teachings of the Obaku school of Zen, as well as contemporary Ming and early Qing dynasty Chinese styles of calligraphy to Japan, influencing monks like Obaku Kosen (1633–1695), whose “A Sash of Clouds” is on view. Native Japanese Zen Buddhist monks also developed unorthodox, distinctively bold, personal styles of Zen painting and calligraphy to express evocative calligraphic poems and enigmatic, phrased maxims. Five works on view by the Shingon Buddhist monk, Jiun Onko, whose style was influenced by contemporary Zenga and Zen calligraphy, include a forcefully written inscription of the name of the Shinto god Sukuna Hikona no Mikoto, who provides knowledge of medicine to humans, thereby protecting the land and its people.

Altar ornaments and ritual objects were also integral to the practice of Buddhism in Japan. Examples on view include:

  • A Kakamura period altar pendant
  • A 13th-century five pronged Vajra—a ritual implement in the form of a stylized thunderbolt used to sanctify the temple space
  • A Wheel of the Buddhist Law

The exhibition is generously supported by Takashi, Koichi, and Koji Yanagi; Mitsuru Tajima; and The Feinberg Foundation, with additional funding from the Friends of the Freer and Sackler Galleries.

The Freer and Sackler galleries together form the national museum of Asian art for the United States. Hours are 10 a.m.–5:30 p.m. daily (except Dec. 25) and admission is free. This July, the galleries remain open on Thursday evenings until 8 p.m. for “Art Night on the Mall.” The galleries are located near the Smithsonian Metrorail station on the Blue and Orange lines. For more information, the public may call 202.357.2700 or TTY 202.357.1729, or visit the galleries’ Web site at

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