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Q+A: Masterpieces of Japanese Art

by Dr. Hou Mei Sung


curatorial , Masterpieces of Japanese Art , Asian Art , Hou-Mei Sung , exhibitions

Want to know more about Masterpieces of Japanese Art? Below the Curator of Asian Art reveals why this upcoming exhibition is so special!


In the press release, there is talk about the connection between Cincinnati and Japan.  Can you tell us more about the connection between these two places?  How did so much Japanese Art make its way to Cincinnati in the 19th century?  

The core of the Art Museum’s Japanese collection was formed in the late 19th century through contributions of a large and tightly knit group of Cincinnatians. This group included leading citizens, including Maria Longworth Nichols Storer (1849–1932), founder of the Rookwood Pottery Company and John J Emery, the Art Museum’s president and chairman of the Board of Trustees; artists (Robert Blum and Kitaro Shirayamadani); and businessmen (Joseph Thoms, John Bookwalter, Matsuo and  Etsu Sugimoto), and a missionary (Dr. Adeline Kelsey), who all visited Japan and participated in a direct and interesting dialogue with Japan. This exchange not only shaped the Museum’s Japanese art collection, but also left their imprints on the city’s history.


How can the layperson tell the difference between Japanese Art and other Asian art, such as Korean or Chinese art? What are the distinguishing features of Japanese art?

In general, Chinese art tends to be more intellectual and formal by incorporating philosophical, literary, and historical concepts and references in its artistic expressions, while Japanese art is better known for its simple, decorative design and  more sensitive depiction of  human emotions and sometimes combined with a touch of humor.


What is the Tale of Genji and why is this screen considered a masterpiece?

The Tale of Genji was written in the early 11th century by Murasaki Shikibu, a lady-in-waiting in Japan’s imperial court. The book, considered to be the first modern novel in Japanese literature, followed the romantic life of Prince Hikaru Genji and a low-ranking concubine.   

The Museum’s screen (shown above) features the scene from the first chapter of the Tale of Genji, in which the twelve-year old Genji is going through his initiation ceremony.  This rare and early screen came to Cincinnati through Joseph C. Thoms, a Cincinnati business man, who traveled to Japan in 1897. Mr Thoms purchased the screen following the advice of Dr. Ernest Fenollosa (1853-1908), a key figure in shaping the Japanese art world of 19th century in both Japan and the US.

The screen was identified as an important cultural property in 2012 by the National Research Institute of Cultural Properties, Tokyo, and restored by the Institute. It is a unique treasure because it is one of the only surviving Japanese screen painting attributed to the female artist, Chiyo Mitsuhisa (fl. c. 1532-55), the daughter of Tosa Mitsunobu and wife of Kanō Motonobu.


Masterpieces of Japanese Art opens Saturday February 14th.  For more information, check out the exhibition page.