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‘Shinto’ Brings Rare Japanese Works to Cleveland Museum of Art

The current exhibit at The Cleveland Museum of Art - "Shinto: Discovery of The Divine in Japanese Art" - has been a long time coming. 

Sinéad Vilbar, curator Japanese Art, Cleveland Museum of Art [photo: Howard Agriesti]

CMA curator Sinéad Vilbar first got the germ of the idea in 2006.  She began working on the exhibit ten years ago while employed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. 

When Vilbar was hired by CMA in 2014, she brought the show with her as curator of Japanese art.  The show finally went on view last month.

"A show like this requires a lot of different stages," Vilbar said.

Kasuga Mandala Reliquary Shrine, 1479. Muromachi period (1392–1573) Tokyo National Museum. Photo: TNM Image Archives

Negotiations with cultural officials, coordinating sit-downs with temple priests and overcoming the artifacts' own schedules all took time.

"Many of these works still belong to Buddhist temples or Shinto Shrines in Japan and they have specific festival schedules.  Some of these works are required to be in Japan and be available to their communities during those festivals," she said.

Female Kami, 900s. Heian period (794–1185) The Museum Yamato Bunkakan, Nara

What makes the show even more challenging is that many of these works are not allowed to be shown for the duration of the exhibit. 

So to accommodate this the show will be displayed in two shifts.  Part one of the Shinto exhibit is on view now through May 19th.

"And then we will have a short three days in which to rotate about 45 percent of the exhibition.  We will re-open on Thursday, May 23rd, with a number of new works that will take the place of the ones needed to go off view," she said.

Musical Instruments Donated by Cloistered Emperor Reigen,1715. Edo period (1615–1868) [photo: Nara National Museum]

This way CMA visitors can see two different exhibits between now and the end of June.

"I would hope people would come at least twice, at least to see the first rotation and the second rotation.  But also because it's a complex exhibition with a lot going on in each individual art work I imagine some people may wish to come more than twice," she said.

Shinto is the former state religion of Japan and the exhibit features its deities, known as Kami.

Illustrated Legends of the Kitano Tenjin Shrine, late 1200s. Kamakura period (1185–1333)Image © The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

"Kami are essentially spirits or divinities who occupy the heavens, they occupy the earth and basically they are in everything.  They can be the spirit within people, they can be the spirit within a tree," she said.

The signature image of the exhibit is a wood sculpture of the seated Kami "Tenjin" with a serious scowl on his face. However, Vilbar says the Kami deities demonstrate many personalities.

Seated Tenjin, 1259. Kamakura period (1185–1333)  [photo: Nara National Museum]

"I think one way that makes them easier to understand for an audience in the West who has some education of Western religious traditions would be to conceive of kami as being quite similar to the Greek Gods on Mount Olympus.  They have personalities, they have likes and dislikes.  They also have quarrelsome relationships with one another and then sometimes very peaceful and happy relationships," she said.

Like the Tenjin, many of the works are made out of wood.

 Seated Tenjin, 1261. Kamakura period (1185–1333)  [photo: Nara National Museum]

"In the Shinto tradition in particular there is the idea of shinboku sacred wood.  It can be the idea that the sculpture of a divinity is actually inherently in that particular piece of wood.  It's through carving the piece of wood that you bring out the features that are already there inside the piece of wood," she said.

The Shinto exhibit is divided into six themes. One is called "Entertaining the Gods," which includes something northeast Ohioans can relate to: sports.

"I think if you really want to see the cutest thing [it's] the wonderful diminutive statues of Sumo wrestlers. These little figures link us to a festival that's still held today at Mikami Jinja (shrine) in October where the final event that's held in the evening of the shrine's festival is little boys who have sumo wrestling matches.  But instead of actually wrestling one another they shout!  Whichever boy shouts the loudest wins the match.  They're just marvelously carved wooden figurines," she said.

Sumo Wrestlers and Referee, 1100s. Heian period (794–1185) Shiga Prefecture Important Cultural Property

Since it's opening Vilbar has interacted with visitors and is pleased to see her hard work and long journey toward creating this exhibit paying off.

"It's really moving for me to see people making these artworks their own," she said.

The first rotation of "Shinto: Discovery of the Divine in Japanese Art" is on view now through May 19. 

The second rotation goes on view May 23-June 30 at The Cleveland Museum of Art.


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