The permanent exhibition spaces at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco strike me as lackluster, but the museum’s special exhibitions, in the first floor galleries, are often compelling. Currently there are two exhibits that I can recommend highly (and the museum also has a decent café).
Craft has become a contested idea in the art world, but it is at the center of “Masters of Bamboo: Japanese Baskets and Sculpture from the Cotsen Collection,” on view through May 6th. There are many remarkable objects in this selection from the huge collection donated to the museum by Lloyd E. Cotsen. The exhibit is organized around the master-disciple lineages that are characteristic in this demanding, enclosed tradition. Most of the work is from the past half-century. The aesthetic qualities are notable, but what is most riveting is the astounding craft on display. The making of these objects shows a degree of unhurried commitment that marks a space-time leap from the capitalist universe.
After the austerities of bamboo, the exhibition of miniature paintings and other artifacts from India seems almost licentious. That show is called “Princes, Palaces, and Passion,” and it lives up to its name. I am a huge fan of Indian miniature paintings, and it is always a thrill to see a good selection in person, as most of the reproductions in books seem to take the life out of them.
The Asian's selection, organized over an eight-year period by UC Berkeley professor Johanna Williams, focuses on the Mewar Kingdom in the part of India now known as Rajasthan. Across a four-century span, the earliest works seem tentative, and the late works seem Mannerist. In between there is about a century and a half of sparkling achievements (late 17th Century through early 19th Century).
The formal devices of these paintings give them a contemporary feel, and the colors still seem fresh. The stylized rendering of trees and shrubs is a feature I particularly enjoy. A few paintings show princes holding implements of hunting or war (as in the image above). But often there is an atmosphere of upper-class relaxation and eroticism that calls to mind 18th Century European painters like Boucher and Fragonard. In the Indian work, however, the idealization of court life does not seem so rooted in time; it can even look like episodes from a sci-fi adventure. The exhibit will be on view through April 29th.
There are catalogues for both exhibits, but unfortunately the quality of the reproductions is disappointing. Additional bamboo work and Indian paintings are on view in the permanent galleries upstairs.
Photography is not permitted in either exhibit, so the images here have been culled from the internet, as follows (top to bottom):
Kawashima Shigeo, “Model for Funabashi Shore Park Exhibition,” 1999. Photo by Kaz Tsuruta.
Yamaguchi Ryuoun, “Wave Wave,” 1999. Photo courtesy of the Lloyd Cotsen Japanese Bamboo Basket Collection.
Shono Shounsai, “Shimmering of Heated Air” (flower basket), approx. 1969. Photo by Kaz Tsuruta.
Surajmalji, “Son of Rao Narayanadasa,” approx. 1820. Photographed for the Berkeley Art Museum by Benjamin Blackwell. Image from Indian Writing Station website.