Art museums in Japan, tradition and modernity

Conference by Giada Ricci, architect, museologist and scenographer, Doctor in art history, UNESCO expert.

In Japan, the museum is a recent institution whose birth dates back to the middle of the 19th century.rd century, when the country reopened to international trade under pressure from the West. The notion of an art museum thus emerged in the Meiji era (1868-1912), the country opened up and modernized. However, there were traditions of presenting sacred works since the 15rd century. In the temples, sacred paintings were explained during emaki or on the occasion of kaichō (opening of the curtain, unveiling) where paintings and sculptures were presented, usually hidden in temple reserves. Works also traveled from one temple to another for traveling presentations, de-gaichō, sort of temporary exhibitions. At the end of the Edo period (1603-1868), large ema, monumental paintings on wood, are sponsored and exhibited in a dedicated pavilion, emadō. Even today in Shintō shrines, small ema, votive tablets in painted wood, are hung in the temple grounds.
At the same time, the mismono, an urban fair and festival, was held outside the temple grounds. THE mismono combined shows, attractions and exhibitions of curiosities. In the reception rooms of residences or castles, the ruling warrior class of the Edo period also presented paintings and calligraphy in the tokonoma, a decorative alcove, as well as Buddhist attributes and Chinese tea ceremony objects, karamono.
The first exhibition, hakurankai, 1872, was organized for Japan's participation in the Vienna World's Fair. Defined as “Exhibition of unusual objects from then and now”, this exhibition, in the Confucian temple of Yushima Seidō, presented a set of art and craft objects, stuffed animals and even a salamander alive in an aquarium. In Vienna in 1873, Japan offers an overview of its high-quality artisanal production in two pavilions, as well as a garden decorated with a bridge and a small Shinto temple.
It is important to note that at this time, the Japanese will create words or adapt Japanese terms to express new concepts such as: art, bijutsu ; exposure, hakurankai ; museum, hakubutsukan ou bijutsukan, which were absent from their vocabulary.

Ema Pavilion at Kitano Tenmangu Temple, Kyoto. @Giada Ricci.

Ueno Museum, J.Conder, 1882. @ Nat. Diet Library

In 1877, the Pavillon des Beaux-Arts constituted the central building of the 1st National Industry Exhibition in Ueno Park, Tokyo. The first brick masonry art gallery, built to last, its architecture and design are inspired by the model of Western museums of the time. Only four years later for the second National Exhibition of 1881, a large two-story building was built to the plans of the young English architect, Josiah Conder, who also formed the new generation of Japanese architects. Destroyed by the great earthquake of 1923, a new Honkan, the main building of the current museum, was built in 1937 in imperial style, teikan yōshiki.
Until the Second World War, the architecture and design of museums remained strongly influenced by the West. After the war, the Kamakura Museum of Modern Art, built by Sakakura Junzō in 1956, was Japan's first modern art museum. It is interesting to see that the building is located in the middle of a garden, on the edge of a pond, thus communing with nature. It should be noted that the interior courtyard was crossed by Japanese footsteps (visible on the construction plans) which, as in the gardens, indicated the route to follow. This construction, no longer meeting the exhibition and conservation criteria of a modern museum, was recently threatened with demolition, but was saved and restored as a witness to modernist architecture in Japan.
Responsible for the creation of the National Museum of Western Art in Tokyo, Le Corbusier stayed in Japan to make the first sketches of the project and then entrusted its execution to his former students, Maekawa Kunio, Sakakura Junzō and Yoshizaka Takamasa. Built in 1959, the building is a massive volume closed on the outside and mounted on stilts. The interior circulation follows a spiral plan unfolding from the inside to the outside, according to the Corbusean model of the “museum with unlimited growth”. The large central room where Rodin's sculptures are exhibited is lit by the glass pyramids of the roof supplemented by artificial lighting, an avant-garde design for the time.

Miho Museum, Jeoh M. Pei, 1996. @ Giada Ricci.

Akino Fuku Museum, Fujimori Terunobu, 1997. @ Giada Ricci.

Result of a dialogue started over a century ago with the Western heritage that they have assimilated and made their own, it is especially from the '90s that museum architects have developed their own design and construction methods. of space, through a work of simplification and synthesis inspired by the particularities of the Japanese spatiality of wooden architecture. The museums of the 1990s-2020s, often the work of internationally recognized Japanese architects, prove to be exemplary and coherent achievements offering spaces with complex interrelationships.
The Miho Art Museum, near Kyoto, built by Ieoh Ming Pei in 1996, is a private museum, managed by a religious foundation. From the car park, a winding route takes the visitor through the forest, through a tunnel under the mountain then a cable-stayed bridge over a valley, before arriving at the museum where a large glass roof allows you to immerse yourself in the landscape. mountainous which extends as far as the eye can see. This journey is like an initiatory path before accessing the almost sacred space of the museum and contemplating the works of art. Furthermore, the creation of different perspectives is part, like the presence of nature, of the design and spatiality of premodern Japanese residences.
In 1997, the Akino Fuku Art Museum, built by Fujimori Terunobu, presented itself as a fortress. Here too, you have to follow a sloping path lined with flowers and shrubs to climb the hill before reaching the entrance to the small museum dedicated to the painter Akino Fuku. The construction materials are traditional (Teppei stone, local cedar wood, rattan mats) and a sheltered terrace allows you to admire the valley and commune with the surrounding forest. Visitors, after taking off their shoes, can move around and sit down to admire the works. Fujimori, architect and architectural historian, builds original museums while always seeking to promote traditional materials and local know-how.
The exhibition is also strongly conditioned by the typology of the Japanese and Asian collections (paper, organic materials) and by the anti-seismic protection. Among other things, Japanese museums have many wall-mounted display cases to display screens, horizontal scrolls, etc., and these display cases are attached to the structure of the building which is itself anti-seismic.
Despite the fragility of the collections, which are particularly sensitive to light, it is interesting to note that certain museums, such as the Suntory Museum in Kuma Kengo, Tokyo Midtown, 2007, nevertheless have very large glass walls which adapt to the atmosphere sought-after light and the objects on display. For sensitive papers or objects, exterior light is veiled by blinds or sunshades, whereas for non-fragile sculptures or works, it is let in naturally. This is the case of the Nezu Museum, Kuma Kengo, 2008, in the center of Tokyo, where traditional blinds, sweat, partially block out the light but allow a view of the works in the hall and the garden.

Nezu Museum, Aoyama, Tokyo, Kuma Kengo, 2008. @ Giada Ricci.

Lee Ufan Museum, Naoshima, Andō Tadao, 2010. @ Giada Ricci.

The specifically Japanese way of reviving cultural traditions in the museum space is manifested in different aspects, not only through simple formal analogies but also through the treatment of routes, moving space and modulation of light. .
The Chichū Art Museum on Naoshima Island, built by Tadao Andō in 2004, is completely buried in a hill to respect the island's landscape. The route takes you between the works of Monet, De Maria and Turrell, and the courtyards with geometric shapes, between shadows and lights.
Built by SANAA, Sejima Kazuyo and Nishizawa Ryūe, the Kanazawa Museum of 21st Century Contemporary Art, 2004, stands out from many classic art museums. Its architecture, a circular volume surrounded by exterior glass walls, is widely open towards the city. The exhibition spaces, as well as the reserves, workshops, shops and restaurant, are organized in independent volumes in the center of the building. Contemporary artists who exhibit there can choose between exhibition rooms of different sizes and characters to present their works.
The Towada Contemporary Art Center, 2004, was built solo by Nishizawa Ryūe. The rooms, white cubes of varied shapes, connected by a gallery with a fluid layout and largely glazed, host works created to measure by contemporary artists for each space, and enter directly into a dialogue with the city.
The Teshima Art Museum, 2014, is also a creation of Nishizawa Ryūe with the artist Naito Rei, whose work Matrix occupies the interior of a white shell placed on the natural soil of the island. Communicating with the landscape of rice fields and woods, the museum is open to the elements through two unglazed oval bays, the museum exhibits nature in its deep essence. By letting the natural elements (air and wind, rain and sun, shadow and light, smells and sounds) enter the empty space, he invites us to feel and experience it intimately.
Located in the old district of Tokyo where Hokusai lived, the Sumida Hokusai Museum was created by Kazuyo Sejima alone in 2016. Designed as a living facility for the city's inhabitants, the building, a monumental metal block, opens on an esplanade equipped with games for children. The fragility of the prints does not allow them to be exposed to light for long periods, the museum offers a large space reserved for temporary exhibitions, while the permanent exhibition is presented in a relatively small space, animated by interactive games and touch screens.

Teshima Art Museum, Nishizawa Ryūe, 2014. @ Giada Ricci.

Sumida Hokusai Museum, Tokyo, Sejima Kazuyo, 2016. @ Giada Ricci

The Kusama Yayoi Museum in Tokyo, 2018, is representative of a private museum dedicated to a contemporary artist. This four-story tower, a luminous sculpture in the nighttime panorama of Tokyo, plays on the famous polka-dotted pumpkins and polka dots, signatures of Kusama Yayoi. The museum also features an “infinity room,” an enclosed space covered in mirrors and repeating patterns that create an illusion of infinity.

Japanese contemporary art museums have become fields of architectural experimentation on the scale of cities and landscapes. They are no longer just places of exhibition and culture but play a very important social role. The alliance of aesthetics and functionality, architectural and environmental quality, museography and conservation of works, expresses a modernity attached to the strongest and deepest values ​​of Japan's cultural and spatial tradition in a vision of the museum open to sensations and to the world.


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