Asia Society Museum Presents 'Kamakura: Realism and Spirituality in the Sculpture of Japan'

Zen’en (1197-1258), Japanese cypress (hinoki) with cut gold leaf and traces of pigment, inlaid crystal eyes, and  bronze staff with attachments. H. 22¾ x W. 9½ x D. 9½ in. Asia Society, New York: Mr. and Mrs. John D. Rockefeller 3rd Collection, 1979.202a-e. Photography by Synthescape.

NEW YORK, February 9, 2016—Asia Society Museum presents the first major loan show of Kamakura sculpture in the United States in more than thirty years. "Kamakura: Realism and Spirituality in the Sculpture of Japan" looks beyond the aesthetics and technical achievements of these remarkable sculptures, and specifically examines the relationship between realism and the sacred empowerment of the objects.

The exhibition comprises Kamakura masterpieces from private and museum collections in North America and Europe, and highlights masterworks from Asia Society’s Mr. and Mrs. John D. Rockefeller 3rd Collection. The Kamakura period (1185–1333) is considered a high point in the history of Japanese art, with sculpture displaying striking realism and dynamism. The exhibition explores how these sculptures are “brought to life” or “enlivened” by the spiritual connection between exterior form and interior contents, and devotional practice.

The Kamakura period was a time of profound political and social disruption. Powerful warrior clans challenged the imperial court that had dominated the political and cultural landscape for centuries. The destruction of great Buddhist temples in the civil war of the 1180s and renewed contact with the Asian mainland that flourished soon after, led to a rebuilding that invigorated arts and religious practices. Elite warriors became an important new source of patronage for religious arts, while the imperial court and aristocratic clergy continued their sponsorship of sculpture workshops. 

The exhibition is divided into three sections. Form and Presence examines the formal and technical developments in Kamakura sculpture that allowed for the creation of these vividly realistic works. New practices employed during this era include the use of joined-woodblock construction—utilizing multiple hollowed wood blocks—which allowed sculptors to convey more natural and fluid movement. The use of inset back-painted crystal eyes, which would have reflected firelight in temples, gives the sculptures a more lifelike and expressive appearance.

A section on Ritual and Devotional Contexts explores Kamakura objects as the focus of rituals, temple worship, and private devotion within various Buddhist schools and movements of the period. In their original contexts, the icons were considered “real presences” brought to life by their naturalistic form, ritual activation, and sacred interior contents. After production, icons were consecrated during an “eye-opening” ceremony, a ritual including the symbolic painting in of the pupils rendering the icon spiritually potent.

The third section, Empowering Interiors, looks at the fascinating interiors of Kamakura-period sculptures, considering the enlivening function of the sacred objects, texts, and inscriptions found in many icons. While the practice of placing deposits inside Buddhist sculptures is ancient, there was a significant increase in the frequency and quantity of these deposits during the Kamakura period. Statues with interior deposits might contain a variety of objects, including miniature icons, scriptures, reliquaries, and devotional prints of various deities.

A highlight of the exhibition is a Jizō Bosatsu from the Museum of East Asian Art Cologne, RBA, along with its interior contents. During conservation treatment in the 1980s, it was opened and found to contain, among its most significant deposits, a silk brocade bag with a grain inside it considered to be a relic of the Buddha; two miniature gilt bronze statues, one of the historical Buddha Shakyamuni and the other of Amida Buddha, found inside the head of the sculpture and considered to have miraculous powers; and thousands of printed images of these icons on small strips of paper which served both a devotional purpose and as an aid to help raise funds for the making of the icon.

"Kamakura: Realism and Spirituality in the Sculpture of Japan" is cocurated by Ive Covaci, Fairfield University, and Adriana Proser, John H. Foster Senior Curator for Traditional Asian Art, Asia Society. An illustrated catalogue copublished by Asia Society Museum and Yale University Press accompanies the exhibition.

Asia Society has organized a season of related programs presenting a dynamic look at Japan including talks exploring Japan’s cultural history, as well as performances and films exploring traditional and contemporary expressions. Discussions will feature prominent business, government, and civil society leaders providing insights on Japan’s past, present, and future. The season coincides with the 60th anniversary year of Asia Society, which was founded in 1956 by John D. Rockefeller 3rd.

"Kamakura: Realism and Spirituality in the Sculpture of Japan" is made possible by the generous support of The National Endowment for the Arts.

Major support for this exhibition is also provided by the Mary Livingston Griggs and Mary Griggs Burke Foundation and Etsuko O. Morris and John H. Morris Jr.

Asia Society acknowledges other generous underwriters including The Kitano Hotel New York, the Japan Foundation, The Blakemore Foundation, Peggy and Richard Danziger, Japanese Art Dealers Association, Helen Little, Toshiba International Foundation, John C. Weber, and the Ellen Bayard Weedon Foundation.

Additional support is provided by Sebastian Izzard, Dian Woodner, Leighton R. Longhi, Joan B. Mirviss, and Erik Thomsen.

About Asia Society Museum

Asia Society Museum presents a wide range of traditional and contemporary exhibitions of Asian and Asian American art, taking new approaches to familiar masterpieces and introducing under-recognized arts and artists. The Asia Society Museum Collection comprises a traditional art collection, composed of the initial bequests of Mr. and Mrs. John D. Rockefeller 3rd, and a contemporary art collection focused on new media.

Founded in 1956, Asia Society is a nonprofit, nonpartisan, educational institution headquartered in New York with new state-of-the-art cultural centers and gallery spaces in Hong Kong and Houston, and offices in Los Angeles, Manila, Mumbai, San Francisco, Seoul, Shanghai, Sydney, Washington, D.C. and Zurich.

Asia Society Museum is located at 725 Park Avenue (at 70th Street), New York City. The Museum is open Tuesday through Sunday from 11:00 A.M.–6:00 P.M. and Friday from 11:00 A.M.–9:00 P.M. Closed on Mondays and major holidays. General admission is $12, seniors $10, students $7, and admission is free for members and persons under 16. Free admission Friday evenings, 6:00 P.M.–9:00 P.M. The Museum is closed Fridays after 6:00 P.M. from July 1 through Labor Day.