Mingei: Japanese Folk Art, an exhibition consisting of 115 paintings, sculptures, ceramics, furniture, lacquers, toys, and other artifacts, opened at the Brooklyn Museum on July 12 and remained on display through September 30, 1985. Most of the art of Japan is imbued with simplicity, directness, and a tremendous sense of design. Japanese work in the visual arts of Japan, sustained over many generations, has led many non-Orientals to consider them as highly decorative people. In fact, the Japanese have never recognized a basic distinction between art (painting, sculpture, and architecture) and craft (ceramics, metalwork, furniture, and textiles).

In the West, by comparison, the guilds’ that began organizing underecclesiastical aegis in medieval times created a distinct class of artisans. With the European Renaissance, there emerged the ideal of the artist as a unique individual divinely inspired and talented, who was very different from ordinary craftsmen. Fortunately, this ideal still persists today. No sensible Italian, for example, considers the celebrated designer Gucci, based in Florence, an artist. On the other hand, the eminent contemporary Italian painter, Pietro Annigoni, who also makes Florence his home, is recognized as an artist.

It is surprising that a people as class-conscious as the Japanese did not distinguish between craftsmen and artists until the distinction was introduced to Japan from the West in the late 19th century. Closed to foreigners from 1639 until Commodore Perry forced its reopening in 1853-54 and initiated the Meiji Restoration (1855-68), Japan had nothing like the Western concept of art as something distinct from skilled craftsmanship. To accommodate the Western view of the arts, the Japanese coined two new words—bijutsu for “art” and geijutsu meaning “the fine arts”—in the early 1870’s.

But after Perry’s reopening Japan, the incredibly rapid industrialization and Westernization of Japan nearly destroyed traditional Japanese crafts. They were saved from oblivion at the last moment largely through the efforts of one man, Yanagi Soetsu (1889-1961). Yanagi, a philosopher turned literary and art critic, founded the Crafts Movement in Japan, inspired by William Morris’ Art and Crafts Movement in England. Noting that there was no word in Japanese for folk art, Yanagi invented one in the early 1920’s: mingei, “the art of the common people.” In 1926, Yanagi and his friends founded the Japan Folk Art Association (Nihon Mingei Kyokai), which now has its own museums in Tokyo, Kurashiki, Tottori, and Osaka.

The gray eminence of the recent show at the Brooklyn Museum turned out to be an astute American, Stewart Cutlin (1858-1929). It was largely due to his farsightedness that the museum acquired such an extensive collection of mingei. Designed by the famous architectural firm of McKim, Mead & White and constructed in 1897, the Brooklyn Museum is unique among American museums in being able to assemble such a comprehensive exhibition of Japanese folk art from its own permanent collection. The museum’s Curator of Asian Art, Robert Moes, active in promoting his department’s acquisitions, is gaining a wide reputation on the strength of shows such as Mingei.

Cutlin served as the museum’s indefatigable Curator of Ethnology from 1902 to 1928. He purchased Japanese folk art at the source during two collecting trips to Japan in 1909 and 1913-14. At that time. Westernization had not yet destroyed all the old ways, especially out in the countryside. (Striking black and white photographs of traditional agrarian scenes were intelligently integrated into the recent exhibition.) Since the early 1970’s, the Brooklyn Museum has prudently sought to fill the gaps in the Japanese folk art collection originated by Cutlin through systematic purchases and through the donation of mingei pieces from munificent collectors.

The brilliance of the Mingei exhibition is representative of the change for the better that the Brooklyn Museum has taken under the stewardship of Robert T. Buck, its new director. Buck’s work has earned him kudos and more kudos from leading art critics. Before Buck assumed the directorship, the Brooklyn Museum was filled with the “organized clutter” of a moribund Victorianism. Today, the museum is uncluttered, clean, and intelligently reorganized. Former labyrinths have been removed and refurbished with taste and acclaimed works of art better displayed, yet the museum’s soul has been untouched. Nowhere is the quiet dynamism of the Buck administration more noticeable than in the rotating gallery, used for traveling and temporary shows such as the Mingei.

The Brooklyn Museum presented Mingei as subtly as tea is in Japan. But given its Brooklyn location, Mingei turned out to be the best of two worlds. Its success, unlike that of blockbuster art shows of late, was established on individual rapport rather than on media blitz. In adopting such a dignified and restrained approach, Robert Buck seems to be emulating the tradition of Sherman Lee, the brilliant and demanding retired director of the Cleveland Museum. In a long and eventful career, during which he advised such eminent collectors as the late John D. Rockefeller III (founder of New York’s Asia Society), Lee simply shunned blockbuster art exhibitions. Very few Americans have heard about or read The New Golden Land: European Images of America From the Discoveries to the Present Time, by Hugh Honour. But that is how Lee celebrated the Bicentennial in 1976 at his Cleveland Museum!

Visitors entering the Mingei exhibition were greeted by a solemn, 51-inch granite Buddhist sculpture of Kannon Bosatsu, the most merciful and most popular of Buddhist deities in Japan. With hands clasped together in the Buddhist practice of greeting and showing reverence, eyes closed in meditation, the elegant sculpture set the mood of quiet repose. Commoners in Japan practice both Buddhism and their indigenous faith of Shintoism. Like any people, Japanese commoners also have a sense of humor. This also became evident in a few pieces with exaggerated physiognomy—works of innocent lampooning, one might say.

In the low-ceilinged rectangular main gallery, works of art were supported on pedestals set upon a dark floor covering. All of the exhibits were displayed with immense concern for the overall design and visual effect. The visitor’s line of vision, however, was arrested by two glass cases located in the center of the gallery. Inside these horizontal and rectangular showcases, concealed lighting illuminated smaller works of art, some quite familiar.

Iwazaru (the ubiquitous “Speak No Evil” monkey), for example, is a nine-inch seated simian in Japanese cypress, best known to most Americans through cheap souvenirs imported from Japan before World War II. The Iwazaru, like all other works of art in the Mingei exhibition, was executed by anonymous craftsmen. An ability to economize lines without jeopardizing forms—human, animal, or geometric—has long been the hallmark of Japanese folk art. In Manhattan’s kitsch shops, I have seen the latest Japanese quartet of simians. The fourth monkey is a new addition: holding its nose, it can “Smell No Evil”! Such is the hilarious response of Japanese folk artists to the air pollution so prevalent in their country as well as ours.

The few suggestions of color in the show were to be found in the textiles, including coats of firemen, the livery coats of workmen, and shop curtains. Unusual, too, were the kimonos shown here. Unmistakably coarse and simple, they conveyed the feeling of quiet dignity with which the common Japanese live. The earthy vitality found in many of the mingei pieces forced one to remember that the elite in Japan commissioned a very different sort of art, renowned for its flamboyance and flair. Still, in charm and sweetness, the folk art of the Mingei show transcended the pedestrian. Between 1800 and 1910, Japanese commoners managed to avoid the monotony of uniform dress and color now found in so many socialist regimes. This is no mean achievement for anonymous craftsmen and the commoners who patronized them. Bound within a narrow geography, limited in their natural resources, drained of their energy by internecine wars and military adventures abroad, perceived solely as entrepreneurs, the Japanese have lately been perceived as being distant and even cold.

What visitors garnered from the Mingei exhibition was another image of the Japanese, as a people relaxed, isolated perhaps, but very much within the family of man. Electricity, kerosene, and propane, Mr. Buck declared in his preface to the show’s catalog, have taken the place of wood, charcoal, and candles. Small wonder that the Japanese have had to gravitate to themselves as they have redefined the substrata of their folk art. No other nation recognizes each leading artistic creator as a “National Living Treasure.” Two such Living Treasures earned their renown through breakthroughs in making bronze bells and paper.

The commonplace in art need not be trite. What can be said about how Okame, the Goddess of Mirth (see photograph), emerged as one of the most delightful characters in Japanese folklore? Papier-mâché, like many other mediums, came naturally to the Japanese craftsmen. Though devoid of Oriental dragons and beasts, the glazed stoneware seen in the Mingei exhibition suggested how even jars for storing tea were made with the inimitable quality of Japanese ceramics. The most outstanding terracotta on display was of Karashishi, “mythical lion,” once used as a roof tile (see photograph). Having learned of lions only through hearsay, the Japanese gave their fantasy free reign in depicting these fearsome beasts. Among the superb examples of mingei furniture was a chest of drawers on wheels, designed to be easily moved in case of fire. Prudence aside, visitors could only admire the chest’s flamelike grain, finished to a glowing orangebrown color.

The last room of the exhibition, like the proverbial end of a burning candle, suddenly came alive. Here, in a very limited space, were Ainu textiles and artifacts. The Ainu, whose art bears a certain resemblance to that of

the American Indians of the Northwest, are aborigines living on Hokkaido, the large northern island of the Japanese archipelago. The objects displayed, though of types dating from the late Edo (1615-1868) and Meiji (1868-1912) periods, were executed roughly between 1800-1910. The Ainu designs of elongated C’s, S’s, U’s, half O’s are forceful reminders that more visionary explorers like Thor Heyerdahl are needed. Such designs occur on tiny Ainu stirrers and tobacco pipes but are best seen in their textiles. Awed by their art, I wondered if one people had in fact been dispersed on two continents. If so, did they cross from the Bering Strait or sail across the Pacific? In any event, as far back as the 1800’s, John Batchelor (a missionary among the Ainu for over 50 years) noted sadly that the traditional Ainu way of life was in decline and that the Ainu themselves were a fast disappearing people!

Robert Moes of the Brooklyn Museum curated the Mingei show and wrote its catalog, which is fully illustrated in black and white with a few color photographs.