MFA receives gift of Japanese masterpieces

The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, has acquired a transformational gift of Japanese art from Cambridge collector Sylvan Barnet and his late partner, William Burto. The gift of 179 works includes Japanese scrolls, ceramics, lacquer, textiles, sculpture, prints, and photographs, along with a small number of Chinese, Korean, Islamic, African, and Anatolian works. From neolithic ceramics to contemporary photography, the gift encompasses almost every major era of Japanese art. These works are important additions to the MFA’s collection—many of which will allow the Museum to tell the complete story of Japanese art in its galleries. Calligraphy and painting from the Rinpa school and literati culture—in addition to modern ceramics, folk art, and photography—highlight time periods and styles that were not well represented in the MFA’s collection. Seven works from the Gift of Sylvan Barnet and William Burto are on view in the MFA’s galleries dedicated to the Art of Japan and Japanese Buddhist Art, with more being installed in the coming months.

Barnet and Burto began collecting Japanese art in the 1960s, after starting careers as English literature professors. They proceeded to amass one of the finest collections of Japanese calligraphy and religious art outside Japan. Important works of calligraphy in the gift include Five Poems from the Lady Ise Volume (Ise-shū) of the “Anthology of Thirty-Six Poets” (“Sanjūrokunin-shū”) known as Ishiyama-gire (Heian period, about 1112). This book page is mounted as a hanging scroll and features lavishly decorated papers and aristocratic calligraphy. Intact volumes of this anthology have been designated National Treasures in Japan. Calligraphic hanging scrolls such as The Immortal Knows the Mind of Antiquity (14th century) by Sekishitsu Zenkyū (1294-1389) represent the veneration of calligraphy by Zen Buddhists, while the Poem with design of wisteria (early 17th century) and Poem from Collection of Japanese Poems of a Thousand Years (Senzai wakashū) with design of butterflies (early 17th century) are important examples of the collaboration between calligrapher Hon’ami Kōetsu (1558–1637) and Rinpa painter Tawaraya Sōatsu (died about 1642).

Hanging scrolls from Zen Buddhist monasteries also form an important part of the gift. Section from the Flower Garland Sutra (Kegon-kyō), known as the Nigatsudō yake-kyō (744–752) is from a set of handscrolls that were commissioned in the mid-8th century to celebrate the construction of the Great Buddha at Tōdai-ji. In the 17th century, a fire damaged the scrolls, giving them a distinctive burnt edge that was widely admired by practitioners of the “tea ceremony” (connoisseurs known for their keen eye for random juxtapositions of the planned and the accidental). Recently, photographer Sugimoto Hiroshi (born in 1948) designed a mounting with silk and strips of silver foil to complement the text, which the collectors then gave to the MFA in honor of Director Malcolm Rogers. Another example of a section of a handscroll mounted as a hanging scroll is The Transformation of Māra’s Arrows and The Temptation by Māra’s Daughters, a section from the Sutra of Cause and Effect, Past and Present (Kako genzai e inga-kyō) (late 13th century). The text of this work is in Chinese, which was how Buddhists texts originally arrived in Japan. 

Objects in the gift that represent medieval Zen culture—a time period marked by the arrival of prominent Chinese religious scholars fleeing the invading Mongols in the early 14th century—includes the hanging scroll Orchids, Bamboo, and Rock (late 14th–early 15th century). The work was created by the talented painter Gyokuen Bonpō (1349–after 1420), who was an abbot at several prominent temples in addition to being an active member of Japan’s literary circles. He was one of a number of Japanese monks who became accomplished poets of Chinese-style verse. Barnet and Burto originally purchased Orchids, Bamboo, and Rock after seeing the work on view at the MFA in 1970, when it was on loan to the exhibition Zen Painting and Calligraphy.

Among the diverse objects in the gift are 17 contemporary photographs by Sugimoto Hiroshi, including examples from his series Seascape, Sea of Buddhas, Architecture and Conceptual Forms as well as portraits of himself and the collectors. Sculpture and ceramics from the Barnet and Burto gift include four wood Hawk sculptures from the early 20th century, which are currently on view in the MFA’s Art of Japan Gallery. These simple but elegant toys were fashioned by farmers to supplement their incomes during the wintertime. Also on view are two stoneware Dishes (ishizara) (19th century)—one with a design of a willow tree and the other with a design of a crane—which would have been used at country inns or roadside food stalls. Admired for their rustic simplicity, they feature iron and cobalt designs.

Additional highlights from the Gift of Sylvan Barnet and William Burto include:

  • Retirement Hut (13th century, Daxiu Zhengnian)—a hanging scroll with bold calligraphy by an important Chinese émigré
  • Messengers Arrive at the Palace of King Suddhodana, a Section of the Sutra of Cause and Effect, Past and Present (Kako genzai e inga-kyo) (late 13th century)
  • Portrait of William Burto and Sylvan Barnet, 2003 (2003, Sugimoto Hiroshi)
  • Self-Portrait of an Optically Handicapped Photographer, 2003 (2003, Sugimoto Hiroshi)

Sylvan Barnet, an Honorary Overseer since 2004, serves on the Art of Asia, Oceania, and Africa Visiting Committee. Barnet and Burto are also recognized as Sargent Society members, Ross Society Fellows, and Eminent Benefactors.

Read the Boston Globe article on the gift.

Above: Artist unidentified, Japanese. 
Section from the Flower Garland Sutra (Kegon-kyō), known as the Nigatsudō yake-kyō, 
744–752
. Mount designed by Hiroshi Sugimoto. Section of a handscroll mounted as a hanging scroll; silver on indigo-dyed paper. Gift of Sylvan Barnet and William Burto in honor of Malcolm Rogers.