Although she grew up in an Italianate mansion filled with fancy French furniture on St. Paul’s Summit Avenue, Mary Griggs Burke never really bonded with her European heirlooms.
“It was very good French and Italian 18th-century stuff,” she once said, but “it’s not my taste.”
Her own taste ran to Japanese art, which she collected for a half-century before her death in 2012 at age 96.
By then hers was considered the finest private collection of Japanese art outside its homeland. Japanese scholars, television crews and even members of the imperial family made pilgrimages to the New York apartment where her private curator arranged special displays of rare ink paintings, 1,000-year-old Buddhist and Shinto sculptures and elegantly gold-leafed folding screens.
Though courted by museums around the world, Burke bequeathed the bulk of her collection, about 670 pieces of Japanese and Korean art and a $12.5 million endowment, to the Minneapolis Institute of Art. Another 340 artworks and $12.5 million more went to New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, where she was a longtime trustee.
About 175 choice pieces from Burke’s gift are on view at the Minneapolis museum through May 8 in a lavish display that fills 16 galleries.
Burke’s collection ends at about 1900, but is complemented by a second show, “Seven Masters,” which presents 20th-century Japanese woodblock prints donated by Minneapolis milling heir Fred Wells and his wife, Ellen. Featuring images of beautiful women, Kabuki actors and landscapes, the “Masters” display runs through March 13.
Together the shows offer an extraordinary panorama of Japanese culture. With their graceful lines, sumptuous textures and engaging narratives, Burke’s sculptures and paintings span more than 1,500 years and reveal a now distant civilization of profound spiritual aspirations, earthy humor and almost fairy-tale beauty and refinement. The Wells collection brings those complexities closer to the present day.
Throughout, novel sound and lighting effects evoke the atmosphere of Japan. Distant murmurs of flowing water and religious chants animate Burke’s Buddhist galleries. In the Wells show, 1920s Japanese jazz and swing music perk up the air, while prints of Kabuki performers are paired with rare photos of the costumed actors. Videos of modern Kabuki productions suggest how little changed Kabuki theater is, even now, centuries after its first appearance on Japanese stages.
“I’m reducing the light in the Buddhist galleries so it is more like a Japanese temple, where there would just be candlelight,” said Andreas Marks, the museum’s German-born curator of Japanese and Korean art, who organized both shows. This is the first time he has used multimedia effects “to transport you out of the museum and into a real situation in Japan in the old days.”
Given her venturesome spirit, it’s a safe guess that Burke would approve. While she had professional advisers, Burke had the intellect, confidence and money to buy what appealed to her own taste. That meant literary and courtly art, rather than samauri weapons and armor, for example. And Buddhist objects, which she especially pursued after the 1975 death of her husband, Jackson Burke, a printer and type designer to whom she had been married for 20 years.
Consequently, the collection has a personal and rather feminine quality, said Matthew Welch, the museum’s deputy director and an expert in Japanese art who was hired 25 years ago with the express purpose of courting Burke.
Heir to a fortune in lumber, railroads and utilities, Burke graduated from Sarah Lawrence College in 1938 and earned a master’s degree in clinical psychology from Columbia University.
Her first trip to Japan, in 1954, was prompted by architect Walter Gropius, whose firm designed a modernist house for her at Oyster Bay on New York’s Long Island. There she fell in love with the landscape and the way beauty infused every aspect of Japanese culture, from the shape of a roof to the folds of a kimono. She began studying Japanese art at Columbia and New York University.
Burke’s discerning eye is evident throughout the show. It starts with prehistoric ceramics, Buddhist and Shinto sculpture and hanging scrolls. Among the latter is an extraordinary 14th-century piece whose Sanskrit characters were apparently woven by Buddhist nuns, who incorporated hair they shaved from their own heads as acts of devotion upon joining a convent.
On a 15th-century scroll nearby, Shinto deities in a golden orb are held aloft by wisteria branches twined in the antlers of a white stag floating from heaven on a pink cloud. A couple of galleries further on, there’s a 19th-century folding screen depicting the “36 Immortal Poets” lolling about in a jolly slumber-party heap, as if painted by a New Yorker cartoonist.
Other highlights include an early 1600s screen showing women doing a bawdy Kabuki performance in an open-air pavilion surrounded by crowds of gaping men. Nearby hangs an especially delicate 18th-century painting by Hosoda Eishi of an exquisite courtesan strolling beneath a cherry tree with two attendants.
Burke obviously had a good sense of humor, too. There’s an amusing gallery of paintings depicting foreigners — Dutch and Portuguese mostly — as the Japanese saw them with their strange long noses, hairy faces and odd clothes. Plus paintings of mischievous mice, children crawling over a recumbent elephant and many elegant images of cranes, her favorite bird.
A stalwart supporter of the International Crane Foundation based in Baraboo, Wis., Burke donated her 870-acre estate near Cable, Wis., to a nature conservancy, said her friend Welch.
Though a very wealthy woman, Burke was obviously no snob, as evidenced by her affection for Ibaraki, a female demon depicted on a big 1881 folding screen as a cartoonish monster clutching a bloody severed arm. According to legend, a warrior sent to kill the demon failed in the task but managed to hack off one of its arms. Later the demon, through trickery, retrieved her detached arm and flew off with it — as shown on the screen.
“Mrs. Burke became so enamored of Ibaraki,” Welch said, “that she once hosted a Halloween party to which she went costumed as the demoness — complete with a papier-mâché severed arm.”