That’s what Seattle Art Museum may as well be saying to the New York Times today. The Times got interested in SAM’s excellent show Japan Envisions the West: 16th-19th Century Japanese Art from Kobe City Museum, but only to run a story on it in the Antiques column.
Making matters worse, the story, by antiques columnist Wendy Moonan, was edited sloppily (in print, there are references to the “Seattle Museum,” which doesn’t exist, and “Nambam” instead of “Namban” art). Moonan also writes as if she didn’t see the show; SAM’s spokespeople say she contacted them from New York.
What’s a drag about this is that Japan Envisions the West is a rich, layered art experience (my review here) deserving of serious attention. If it’s an “antiques” experience, then so is the Matisse sculpture show Roberta Smith reviewed on the Times’s arts front page today.
Because many of the artworks in Japan Envisions the West are delicate, this exhibition is in fact two shows. Nearly half of it changed over at the beginning of this month, so if you saw it before, it’s worth another visit. Here are a few examples of what’s new.
This is a view of Washington, D.C., unlike any other—based on a fantasy vision of the American capital. It’s a woodblock print by the artist Utagawa Yoshikazu, made in 1861, after the forced opening of Japan with the arrival of American Commodore Matthew Perry. The concept of naturalistic perspective was a European one, and in this triptych it’s applied, but not naturalistically. The discrepancy in scale between the two women in the foreground and the two men in the background in the central panel is collage-like and disordered. These people don’t really exist in this place, they float. The two little men, though, also pull the eye back into the right panel (where the women look like miniature versions of the spires behind them), as if the panels are coalescing into a single, readable landscape. In other places, the three panels feel like different times and places. The architecture itself would make for a great study, with its weird industrial-religious shapes—curator Yukiko Shirahara says the countryside is based on images of Italy from a common source of imagery from that period, the London Illustrated News. The artist is adapting the imagery and calling it an American scene in order to feed the curiosity of the Japanese about their new trading partner.
And what’s with the monochrome? The blue color gives everything a dreamlike quality, not unlike this other woodblock print from the same artist.
In this one, which was on display during the first half of the exhibition, the view is doubly alien. Not only is the color weird, but the title calls the picture Steam Locomotive in an American Town and yet what’s pictured looks like a ship on land. Shirahara says the thicket of figures in the foreground is there to cover up the fact that the artist didn’t know what a train wheel looked like.
These are woodblock prints and sketches for a double portrait of Americans from that same period, of Matthew Perry and Captain Henry A. Adams, by the artist Hasegawa Sadanobu. In the catalog for the show, the portraits are described as “devil like … but they do not inspire fear.” They’re both decorative and action-oriented—Perry has his hand on his gun and his face engaged. Here’s another, similar view of Perry, by an unknown Japanese artist.
Compare those to this pose-y portrait of Perry from exactly the same time by German artist Wilhelm Heine. Which portrait would you prefer if you were the subject?
Finally, there’s one point I have to take issue with in Seattle Times critic Sheila Farr’s oddly piecemeal recent “report card” for SAM. Farr complained that Japan Envisions the West should have been at the more “intimate” Seattle Asian Art Museum in Volunteer Park, rather than in the white-box galleries at SAM headquarters downtown. I disagree on two grounds: One, the show is too important, quirky, and fascinating to hide away in the park. Unlike Farr, I believe it demonstrates what SAM does best (and not often enough). Two, the show benefits from the blankness of the walls. Lacking a theatrical installation that would make the artworks look immediately exotic, they are instead themselves more enterable. You disappear into their world, not them into yours.
On another point in Farr’s story, I have to agree with her—with a twist. She criticizes SAM for raising its admissions prices, both for special exhibitions and for access to the regular collections. What Farr doesn’t point out in her gripe about standard collections admission is that this charge is suggested only. This is one of SAM’s most admirable policies, and the museum does it out of sheer goodness. (By having a suggested admissions price rather than a fixed fee, SAM is in the minority nationally.) The rates have gone up, but SAM allows people to determine whether they can pay. There’s nothing to criticize there.
What’s not admirable is that admission to special exhibitions is not pay-what-you-can. In order to see those shows—and the rate is rising to $20 for Roman art from the Louvre in 2008—you have to fork over the high asked-for fee.
That’s a violation of the spirit of the suggested policy, and it amounts to cheating. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, often looked to as a model in its suggested-donations policy, applies the policy to all of its shows across the board. That’s how it should be at SAM.