Crouching beside an 800-year-old Japanese sculpture of a Buddhist god astride a kneeling bull, curator Andreas Marks slipped a sheet of paper under the bull’s hind quarters. It slid across the polished wooden base until it stopped just shy of the animal’s firmly planted back hoofs. The paper’s easy flow made clear that the beast is not lying down but is poised to leap up and carry the god into his fight against evil.
“Bill Clark pointed that out to me when I first met him back in 2008,” said Marks, who heads the Minneapolis Institute of Arts’ new Clark Collections of Japanese Art. “I was very impressed because no university art professor can tell you how a bull gets up.”
Such knowledge comes naturally to Clark, a fifth-generation California dairy farmer. Clark and his wife, Libby, built an internationally acclaimed collection of Japanese art valued at an estimated $25 million. Acquired in June, the Clark Collections make the MIA one of the country’s largest and most comprehensive centers of Japanese art. A sampling of about 120 of the Clarks’ 1,700 works will be shown in “The Audacious Eye,” running Sunday through Jan. 12.
The title of the exhibition acknowledges Clark’s often idiosyncratic taste. For decades, the collector bought both acknowledged masterpieces and eccentric items of personal interest. Bull art, for example. The Buddhist god on the kneeling bull, “Daiitoku Myõõ,” is so old, rare and culturally significant that the Japanese government had to approve its export. But Mochizuki Gyokusen’s almost life-size “Black Bull, ” a 19th-century screen painting, is an idiosyncratic choice — a fierce, muscular beast that looks ready to charge out of a modern stockade. And Ueda Kochu’s “Boy on a Bull” is a charmingly cartoonish rendering of a bug-eyed beast straining against a nose rope.
Nature themes are everywhere, starting with ethereal 15th- and 16th-century ink paintings of preening cranes, a nest of sparrows hidden in a bamboo clump, and a fierce hawk peering over his shoulder. Two hundred years later, the delicate Chinese-influenced painting style gives way to a more robust and playful manner in Dairyusai Getsuju’s delightful “Frog and Mouse,” in which a fat, self-satisfied frog gazes myopically over a grassy landscape in which cowers an almost invisible mouse. Kids will love this stuff.
Religious motifs and graceful tales of court life are well represented, too. A monumental 17th-century painting of the “Death of the Buddha” depicts the serene deity surrounded by weeping followers and despairing animals, including a pink elephant writhing on its back. Nearby, an exquisite folding screen reveals scenes from the 11th-century “Tale of Genji,” considered the world’s first novel. The vignettes — of lovers in a boat, dinners, processions — are seen from above through breaks in golden clouds.
Clark’s 19th-century art includes hanging scrolls of ghosts, water monsters and a pair of fabulous silver-foil folding screens by Mano Kyotei on which the “Gods of Thunder, Wind and Rain” flap fans, spew water and rattle drums. The weirdest piece is Aoki Toshio’s “Shoki and Demons,” a bizarre nightclub bacchanal in which fanged creatures squabble, gossip and dance under the malign gaze of their dissolute overlord.
After that neurotic gloom, the 20th-century gallery is a sunny delight, dominated by Fukami Sueharu’s astonishing porcelain sculptures — a huge celadon bowl poised on a conical tip and 7-foot-tall knife-edged column. A delicate bamboo mobile offers a wavelike interplay of twigs and shadows, while the elegant 2008 screen painting “Blue Sheet and Yellow Flowers” makes a rare excursion into social commentary by depicting a famous Japanese beauty in one of the blue tents that the homeless pitch in Japan’s parks.