MET Exhibition Celebrates Kyoto’s Thousand-Year Artistic Imagination

By Penny Zhou

Nothing is left to chance in Urasenke, one of the main types of Japanese tea ceremonies: which foot to step forward with, which side of the bowl to turn outward, and how to fold your napkin when you wipe a cup.

A formal ceremony based on centuries of history can take hours. Duane Feasel, reportedly the first non-Japanese teacher of the ceremony, finds its meditative nature mentally rewarding—even a bit spiritual. “It’s like retreating into the mountain or something and … just cutting everything out,” he said. “You are not going to worry about the outside world.”

The tea ceremony is part of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art’s effort to introduce the cultural history of Kyoto to the public. Kyoto is the ancient capital of Japan and the home of its imperial court. The exhibition: “Kyoto, Capital of Artistic Imagination” showcases 200 decorative art pieces reflecting the changes in style from the 8th to the 18th century.

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A performance of Urasenke-style tea ceremony at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, August 2019. (Shenghua Song/NTD)

One of the highlights of the exhibition is the Japanese tea utensils. Influenced by the wabi-sabi world view, which focuses on accepting the imperfect and transient nature of life, Japanese tea bowls are often simple and rustic.

Tea culture was first introduced to Japan by Buddhist monks who returned from China. Later, Japan formed its own style, which is more closely connected with Zen Buddhist thinking, and is distinctive from its Chinese origins.

“Zen teachings make people realize that life is short and it’s not perfect and you have to be able to enjoy the time, the moment you live,” the curator of the exhibition, Monika Bincsik, said.

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Japanese tea utensils on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, August 2019. (Shenghua Song/NTD)

Another highlight of the exhibition is the 17th century six-panel folding screen named “Scenes in and Around the Capital,” which presents panoramic views of Kyoto and its suburbs. It displays how men and women in the seventeenth century lived their lives.

“This is almost a map of Kyoto,” Bincsik said. “You can recognize the most important buildings. You can see people enjoying the outings. You can see the beautiful kimonos. And the patterns are quite accurate.”

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Details of “Scenes in and Around the Capital,” a six-panel folding screen from the Edo period (1615~1868) of Japan, presenting panoramic views of Kyoto and its suburbs, on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, August 2019. (Shenghua Song/NTD)
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Details of “Scenes in and around the Capital,” a six-panel folding screen from the Edo period (1615~1868) of Japan, presenting panoramic views of Kyoto and its suburbs, on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, August 2019. (Shenghua Song/NTD)

Several rare Kimonos from the 17th and 18th century are also part of the show. The traditional Japanese garment often displays the delicate embroidery of ancient times.

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Long-sleeved robe with phoenixes, cherry blossoms, peonies, and maple branches from the Edo period (1615~1868) of Japan, on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, August 2019. (Shenghua Song/NTD)

The exhibition also showcases the influence of faith on Japanese society, even in matters related to war.

The Armor of Ashikaga is a 14th century armor, or “yoroi” that bears the image of the Buddhist deity Fudo Myo-O. The protective deity helps warriors keep their inner strength and clear away temptations.

“You have to keep calm, you have to be prepared all the time, and when the time is right, you have to be able to fight,” Bincsik said.

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The Armor of Ashikaga is a 14th century armor, or “yoroi” that bears the image of the Buddhist deity Fudo Myo-O. The protective deity helps warriors keep their inner strength and clear away temptations. It is seen here on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, August 2019. (Shenghua Song/NTD)

The exhibition is on view at the MET’s Japan Gallery from July 24, 2019 to August 2, 2020.