Like any structure, the religion and culture of a country has layers and levels that form its distinct identity. To gain an understanding of the unique qualities of any culture, you must dive deep into what makes that place tick, often by traveling to a new location and spending substantial time there.

"Shinto: Discovery of the Divine in Japanese Art" offers a one-of-a-kind opportunity to do this without having to leave Northeast Ohio. 

Some of these objects on view at the Cleveland Museum of Art have never been seen outside of Japan. The artworks have been made to honor Shinto, Japan’s belief system focused on the veneration of divine phenomena or spirits called kami. These can be elements of the landscape or forces of nature, as well as beings and the qualities that these beings express; they can also be the spirits of venerated dead persons.

The exhibit features 125 works in different media — calligraphy, painting, sculpture, costume, decorative arts — assembled from Japanese and American museums, shrines and Buddhist temples. A number of them have been designated as "Important Cultural Properties" and may be shown for no more than several weeks each year to preserve the artwork. Because of this and the light-sensitivity of other items on view, the exhibition has two rotations; the first runs through May 19, after which many works will be removed and others put on display May 23 to June 30.

The majority of the works are “an expression of the everyday engagement of people with divinities in their midst.” So, while they are works of art in one aspect, they are also objects of cultural and religious importance and often not viewed as art by the people who encounter them daily. It’s an important distinction, one that gives a better perspective of Japanese culture when viewing the exhibit.

The show is broken up into six parts designed to impart understanding of centuries of kami and Buddhist divinities. The different parts also help move you through the spaces and offer a wide variety of objects to observe. At times, the exhibit can feel somewhat overwhelming, especially when you consider the cultural importance of what you are viewing. Taking a slow pace and reading about each section you are in will greatly enhance your experience and temper information overload.

The installation and layout is, plainly put, beautiful. Like so many things this museum does, the level of craftsmanship, thoughtful display and overall care for how things are described and displayed is unparalleled and seemingly always impressive.

Many objects stand out. One is a "Bugaku Mask: Kotoraku, Kodo (Guest)," a wood mask with red and black lacquer from the Edo period (1615-1868). The mask was used in the Kotokuraku dance, which relates to dances brought from Korea. In the dance, a host serves sake to four guests who proceed to get drunk while being impeded by their long swinging noses.

The mask features a dramatically sculpted face with a long nose that swings on a pivot. Its color and shape emphasize the inhibition of the character wearing it and offer some insight into this time period's sense of humor. This mask is displayed in the “Entertaining the Gods” section which offers details about sporting competitions and performing arts held at shrines during festivals to appeal to the resident kami.

The "Gods and Great Houses" section explores the historical relationship of kami veneration to powerful families and individuals of Japan’s elites. An object of note in this section is the "Devotional Shrine with Image of Tenjin Visiting China" from the 17th century. It is lacquered wood with sprinkled gold powder, metal fittings, ink and textile appliqué. This box, which opens on one side to display the kami Tenjin, features paintings of pine and blossoming plum trees.

Here is one strong example of the importance of this show not only to the Cleveland Museum of Art but also to its partners in Japan. This piece is usually shown only once every 25 years, and the last time was in the early 2000s. However, it was so important to the people who care for this object in Japan to share it with this audience, in the spirit of fostering a greater understanding of their religion and culture, that they broke with their previous tradition and have allowed it to be displayed in this exhibition.

"Comb and Makeup Box with Contents" (17th century) is a lacquer box sprinkled with gold and silver powder and would have been meant for the kami of the shrine, who could use it in everyday life. It’s crucial to reiterate that kami are thought to be very human-like, needing things just like we do. In the box are tools for hair care and makeup: mirrors and mirror boxes, boxes for tooth blackening and face whitening, combs, incense box, tweezers, scissors, brushes for drawing eyebrows and brass plates that go across wash basins to hold makeup tools. This box, like so many of the objects on display, is a beautifully made, detailed and thoughtful gift.

This incredible and expansive exhibition offers what is perhaps a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to get to know artworks of Shinto and learn about the veneration of the divine phenomena called kami.

 

Contact Anderson Turner at haturner3@gmail.com.