Zen Buddhist Japanese Paintings at MFA Houston

The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston will present “None Whatsoever: Zen Paintings from the Gitter-Yelen Collection,” from February 19 through May 14, 2023. The exhibition centers around some 100 masterworks from the renowned holdings of New Orleans based collectors Kurt Gitter and Alice Yelen, many of which were recently acquired by the museum. “None Whatsoever” explores the origins of Zen Buddhism in Japanese painting through ink paintings and calligraphies by 18th-century Buddhist master Hakuin Ekaku (1685-1768), and other painter-monks from the 18th to the 20th century who expressed Zen Buddhist teachings through their art.

A related selection of modern and contemporary art influenced by Zen Buddhism includes work by Robert Motherwell, John Cage, Hiroshi Sugimoto, Ad Reinhardt, Takahiro Kondo, and Franz Kline, among others. The Zen Buddhist Japanese paintings exhibition takes its title from a legendary encounter between a Buddhist monk and a Chinese emperor.

According to 8th-century Chinese sources, around the year 520 ACE the itinerant monk Bodhidarma, patriarch of Zen Buddhism, visited the court of the Emperor Wu Liang, a great patron of Buddhist temples, sites and art. The Emperor asked the holy man how much good will his generous deeds had earned in the eyes of the Buddha. The monk’s curt reply – “None Whatsoever” – shocked the ruler. This exchange – seemingly casual and dismissive, yet also uncompromising, profound and revolutionary – has come to embody the relationship in Zen Buddhism between student and teacher.

“Through the sheer importance of the Gitter-Yelen collection and the extraordinary quality of the paintings themselves, ‘None Whatsoever’ will enable us to appreciate the history, legacy and many dimensions of true Zen, as expressed over several centuries by its devotees and disciples,” Bradley Bailey, the Ting Tsung and Wei Fong Chao Curator of Asian Art at the MFAH, said. “Of special significance is the in-depth representation of the work of the 18th-century artist-monk Hakuin Ekaku, who has been increasingly recognized as one of the most important and influential of Japan’s painters.”

Dr. Bailey is co-curator of the Zen Buddhist Japanese paintings exhibition with Yukio Lippit, Jeffrey T. Chambers and Andrea Okamura Professor of the History of Art and Architecture, Harvard University.

Zen comes to Japan

Zen teachings arrived in Japan in the late 12th century. Monks at Buddhist monasteries, which served not only as important religious institutions but as cultural centers, undertook the arts of painting and calligraphy, as Zen teachings, which initially thrived before declining for several hundred years. Beginning in the 18th century, the Zen sect saw a revival and was popularized by several monks, including Hakuin Ekaku.

As a painter and calligrapher, Hakuin introduced bold uses of ink with individualistic brushwork to give traditional themes new forms. His paintings, which playfully expand the Buddhist pantheon to include additional deities, folk figures, and representations of Zen’s “unanswerable questions,” or koan, were revolutionary and reframed Zen Buddhism, formerly an impenetrably erudite and aristocratic pursuit, to be comprehensible by the merchants and farmers of Japan’s Edo Period.

Presenting three dozen of Hakuin’s ink on paper hanging scrolls, “None Whatsoever” conveys for the first time the revered monk’s central role in Japanese religion, reform, painting and, ultimately, American Modernism. The Zen Buddhist Japanese paintings exhibition contains more than 100 works of Zen painting from the Gitter-Yelen Collection of Japanese Art, spanning over four centuries of art. Often playful, sometimes comical, and always profound, Zen paintings, or Zenga, are a distinctive form of ink painting that seek to give form and visual representation to the teachings of Zen Buddhism, with special focus on the figure and lineage of Hakuin, who used his paintings as didactic tools to accompany his sermons and, through the act of painting itself, illustrate fundamental Zen concepts: chance, transience, spontaneity.

Built around new research by Dr. Lippit, this exhibition posits Hakuin as a revolutionary artist, with his bold experiments in calligraphy and abstracted iconography, expressed in particular in his hundreds of depictions of one of the most ubiquitous figures in Zen portraiture, the legendary first patriarch of Zen Buddhism: Bodhidarma, known in Japan as Daruma.

The exhibition also includes Hakuin’s One Hundred “Kotobuki” (1767) a large-scale calligraphy that displays the character for “longevity” written in 100 different styles of seal script. The scroll is one of the most important Zen Buddhist paintings in a U.S. collection.

What’s on View

“None Whatsoever” also includes a wide range of other artists, including Hakuin’s followers, such as the Zen monk Nakahara Nantenbo (1839-1925), and artists from other professional schools of Japanese painting who were influenced by the principles and techniques of Zen painting. Work by other monk artists from the 18th and 19th centuries, including Jiun Sonja, Torei Enji and Sengai Gibon, are placed with 20th-century examples by, among others, Nakahara Nantenbo and Kutsu Deiryu. In addition, the Gitter-Yelen’s longtime, personal focus on zenga has informed the collection with important masterworks by well-known artists who are not typically known for Zen painting, including the 17th century painter Tawaraya Sotatsu and 18th-century painter Ito Jakuchu. The inclusion of their work emphasizes the influence and legacy of the genre.

The Zen Buddhist Japanese paintings exhibition concludes with important 20th- and 21st -century works from the MFAH’s permanent collection, the Menil Collection, and private Houston collections, that highlight the ritual and spiritual components of Zen in relation to philosophy and thought of the 20th century. In particular the concepts of emptiness, repetition and meaninglessness and how, in seeming nothingness there is great potential for the profound are evoked.

This final portion of the exhibition explores the central role of Zen practice and thought in Modernism, and the influence of D. T. Suzuki’s famed lectures on Zen Buddhism at Columbia University in the 1950s. These legendary seminars attracted a broad swath of New York’s artistic and literary community. Works by artists from that generation, including Mark Tobey, Franz Kline, Robert Motherwell, Clyfford Still, Ad Reinhardt, and John Cage, and pieces by contemporary artists including Hiroshi Sugimoto and Kondo Takahiro, will be presented here. A

primary feature of this final section is the museum’s monumental, room-sized Lotus Pond (1987) by Minol Araki, a 12-panel landscape that reimagines Japanese ink-painting tradition. It will wrap the final gallery and provide the setting for the final works in the exhibition, including a John Cage music box. This massive landscape will fully envelop an entire room of the museum’s expansive Brown Foundation Galleries, creating a peaceful, meditative space that will be open for contemplation, guided meditation workshops, music concerts, and other events related to the exhibition.

The largest presentation of Zen Buddhist Japanese paintings from the Gitter-Yelen Collection ever assembled, “None Whatsoever” is a singular opportunity for Houstonians to experience firsthand the beauty, humor, and profundity of one of world’s most fascinating religious and artistic traditions.

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