hen an art museum has a collection of more than 65,000 objects, it isn’t surprising that many of them wind up hidden in storage. Sometimes complete collections are stowed there, rarely if ever seen or studied.
That was the case with Cincinnati Art Museum’s Japanese art when Asian Art Curator Hou-mei Sung arrived in 2002. Sung, who has a doctorate in museum studies and Asian art history from Case Western Reserve, discovered that her holdings included roughly 3,000 objects from Japan.
“I didn’t even know we had a Japanese art collection because most of it had never been published or displayed or organized, and some were not even accessioned,” she says. “Part of the reason is we didn’t have a Japanese gallery, so we sometimes just put one or two things out at the end of the Asian galleries. So I started to research.”
The culmination of that long, meticulous effort will be seen starting Saturday when Masterpieces of Japanese Art (culled from the museum’s collection) opens. It will be up through Aug. 30 and accompanied by a catalog showing the 100 objects in the show and telling the stories behind their histories. Those objects include paintings, screens, prints, ceramics, lacquer and metal wares, ivory carvings, arms and armor, cloisonné, dolls, masks, costumes and textiles.
While it isn’t comprehensive — there are some gaps in early Japanese sculpture, especially — the collection is very strong in paintings and ceramics, Sung believes.
“They came into the museum very early, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries,” she says. “Many of the donors were very important leading citizens of Cincinnati, including the president of the museum’s board, collectors, artists like Robert Blum from Cincinnati and Maria Longworth Nichols from Rookwood Pottery.”
“All these people [and others] created this direct artistic cultural exchange with Japan,” she continues. “It’s a missing chapter of Cincinnati history — how Cincinnati was such an important cosmopolitan city and did this early exchange with Japan that almost rivaled Boston’s.”
Many of the objects in the show required restoration. That led to one of the show’s major revelations, the restored splendor of the mid-16th century six-fold screen, “Presentation of a Prince.” The images on the screen, through application of color and gold leaf on paper, depict a scene from The Tale of Genji, an 11th century novel about the romantic travails of an emperor’s son.
The screen is attributed to Chiyo Mitsuhisa, an important female artist, and is believed to be her only surviving full-scale painting. She is known in Japan for illustrations of Genji-related books.
In her research, Sung knew the piece had an important provenance. It was given to the museum in 1982 by a granddaughter of the Cincinnatian who first acquired it, Joseph C. Thoms. And he had purchased Japanese art, in Japan, on the advice of Ernest Fenollosa, a late 19th century American scholar of Japanese art who spent much time in Japan.
But she also knew it was in a deteriorating state and needed restoration in order to be shown publicly. She thought that Japan’s National Research Institute for Cultural Properties, which funds such projects involving important Japanese art in American museums, would be interested.
But because Cincinnati’s Japanese collection was so unknown, the museum wasn’t on the institute’s radar. “When I worked in Cleveland, they would tour every year to museums to see which one had important work that needs to be preserved,” she says. “However, they never came to Cincinnati.”
“So I went to Japan,” she continues. “I visited them and showed them what we have. And I also met with an expert of Genji-related screens and paintings. She is on a committee of the National Research Institute, and they sent a team to visit us. They selected only two museums [for restoration projects] and we were one.”
She sent the screen to Japan for the work — the restoration makes its debut in this show.
There’s another fascinating story in the show behind a black and gold suit of armor made from iron, doeskin and lacquer. From the late 18th or early 19th century and designed for samurai battle, it was purchased by the museum in 1892 from Adeline Kelsey of Connecticut, a remarkable American physician.
As a missionary doctor and teacher in Yokohama, she befriended students who were daughters of a samurai. They told her they wanted to become doctors.
“So Dr. Kelsey brought them to Cincinnati to attend medical school,” Sung says. “At that time there very few medical schools that admitted women and Cincinnati had the Laura Memorial Woman’s Medical College [a precursor of the University of Cincinnati’s Department of Medicine].”
In order to raise funds for their living and tuition, Dr. Kelsey sold two suits of armor and a piece of brocade to the museum — one of the suits is in this show. She also worked with the museum to hold a special exhibition in 1893 of Japanese objects given to her as gifts. The two daughters graduated and returned to Japan to practice medicine, although they eventually moved to the U.S. in 1907.
One especially beautiful object is a black lacquer-coated model of an oxcart, complete with functional parts and bamboo curtains for its windows and doors. When donated to the museum in 1911, it was a relatively new piece — created in Kyoto in 1895 and brought to Cincinnati by Etsu and Matsuo Sugimoto, who operated a Japanese craft store downtown.
When Matsuo died, Etsu — who was younger — donated this and some dolls also in this exhibit to the museum.
She wrote her autobiography, A Daughter of the Samurai, in 1925 with the support of a Cincinnati family interested in writing and publishing, and it became a national bestseller.
As these and other objects and the stories behind them become known with this exhibition and catalog, Sung believes the art museum’s Japanese collection will acquire increased national attention.
“I think this is a real significant discovery,” she says. ©
MASTERPIECES OF JAPANESE ART is on display at Cincinnati Art Museum Saturday through Aug. 30. More info: cincinnatiartmuseum.org.