Crouching beside an 800-year-old Japanese sculpture of a Buddhist god astride a kneeling bull, curator Andreas Marks slipped a sheet of paper under the bull’s hind quarters. It slid across the polished wooden base until it stopped just shy of the animal’s firmly planted back hoofs. The paper’s easy flow made clear that the beast is not lying down but is poised to leap up and carry the god into his fight against evil.
“Bill Clark pointed that out to me when I first met him back in 2008,” said Marks, who heads the Minneapolis Institute of Arts’ new Clark Collections of Japanese Art. “I was very impressed because no university art professor can tell you how a bull gets up.”
Such knowledge comes naturally to Clark, a fifth-generation California dairy farmer and former CEO of World Wide Sires, an industry leader in artificial insemination of livestock. With the fortune from his cattle businesses, Clark and his wife, Libby, built an internationally acclaimed collection of Japanese art valued at an estimated $25 million.
Acquired in June, the Clark Collections make the MIA one of the country’s largest and most comprehensive centers of Japanese art. A sampling of about 120 of the Clarks’ 1,700 works — ornately painted folding screens, delicately inked hanging scrolls, ancient carvings, modern bamboo and ceramics, spanning more than 1,000 years — will be shown in “The Audacious Eye,” opening Sunday at the institute and running through Jan. 12.
The art comes from the Clarks’ personal holdings and those of a namesake study center and museum they opened in 1995 at their home in Hanford, Calif., a rural town about three hours southeast of San Francisco. As the collection outgrew its quarters, Clark, 83, sought a new site where the art would be more accessible. The Clark Center’s board gave its entire collection to the Minneapolis museum, which agreed to buy an additional $5 million of art from the Clark family. The MIA also hired Marks, the center’s longtime curator, to head the MIA’s department of Japanese and Korean art and to continue the Clark Center’s exhibition and fellowship programs.
Bullish on Japanese culture
The title “Audacious Eye” acknowledges the often idiosyncratic taste of Clark, a self-described “crazy collector” who has indulged his unbridled enthusiasm for Japanese art for decades. He became fascinated by the subject while traveling in Japan during service with the U.S. Navy and began collecting seriously in the 1970s.
Free to spend his own money as he wished rather than adhering to a museum collecting plan, Clark bought acknowledged masterpieces and eccentric items of personal interest. Bull art, for example. The Buddhist god on the kneeling bull, “Daiitoku Myõõ,” is so old, rare and culturally significant that the Japanese government had to approve its export. But Mochizuki Gyokusen’s almost life-size “Black Bull, ” a 19th-century screen painting, is an idiosyncratic choice — a fierce, muscular beast that looks ready to charge out of a modern stockade. And Ueda Kochu’s “Boy on a Bull” is a charmingly cartoonish rendering of a bug-eyed beast straining against a nose rope.
Nature themes are everywhere, starting with ethereal 15th- and 16th-century ink paintings of preening cranes, a nest of sparrows hidden in a bamboo clump, and a fierce hawk peering haughtily over his shoulder. Two hundred years later, the delicate Chinese-influenced painting style gives way to a more robust and playful manner in Dairyusai Getsuju’s delightful “Frog and Mouse,” in which a fat, self-satisfied frog —its tummy ballooned to 3 feet in diameter — gazes myopically over a grassy landscape in which cowers an almost invisible mouse. Kids will love this stuff.
Religion and court life
Religious motifs and graceful tales of court life are well represented, too.
A monumental 17th-century painting of the “Death of the Buddha” depicts the serene deity surrounded by weeping followers and despairing animals, including a pink elephant writhing on its back and clutching a lotus blossom in its trunk. Nearby, an exquisite folding screen reveals scenes from “The Tale of Genji,” an 11th-century account of court life by Lady Murasaki Shikibu that’s considered the world’s first novel. The vignettes — of lovers in a boat, dinners, processions — are seen from above through breaks in golden clouds.
Clark’s 19th-century art includes hanging scrolls of ghosts, water monsters and a pair of fabulous silver-foil folding screens by Mano Kyotei on which the “Gods of Thunder, Wind and Rain” flap fans, spew water and rattle drums. The weirdest piece is Aoki Toshio’s “Shoki and Demons,” a bizarre nightclub bacchanal in which fanged creatures squabble, gossip and dance under the malign gaze of their dissolute overlord.
After that neurotic gloom, the 20th-century gallery is a sunny delight, dominated by Fukami Sueharu’s astonishing porcelain sculptures — a huge celadon bowl poised on a conical tip and a 7-foot-tall knife-edged column. A delicate bamboo mobile by Uematsu Chikuyu offers a wavelike interplay of twigs and shadows, while Yamamoto Taro’s elegant 2008 screen painting “Blue Sheet and Yellow Flowers” makes a rare excursion into social commentary by depicting a famous Japanese beauty in one of the blue tents that the homeless pitch in Japan’s parks.
With the addition of the Clark Collections, the MIA’s Japanese holdings — now numbering 5,000 pieces — rival those of the country’s top museums, New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Boston Museum of Fine Arts and the Freer Gallery in Washington, D.C. In its historical sweep, visual variety and eccentric byways, “Audacious Eye” is a fitting introduction to that hoard.