For a museum with treasures that include objects from millennia ago, 50 years don’t seem a long time, but in fact San Francisco Asian Art Museum is a major, senior presence among its peers, one of the most comprehensive Asian art collections in the world.
At a press conference today, announcing plans for the golden anniversary, Museum Director Jay Xu said that “since its beginning, the museum has viewed itself as a bridge connecting East and West.” In half a century, the museum served millions of visitors from around the world, presenting the art and culture of Asia. Founded with a big gift in 1958 from famed collector Avery Brundage to the Society for Asian Art, the museum opened in 1966 as a wing of the de Young Museum in Golden Gate Park; in 2003, the museum moved into its own home in the Civic Center, near City Hall, the former main library reconstructed by Italian architect Gae Aulenti.
Besides hundreds of events and activities scheduled for 2016, the museum will also present major exhibits, including those showcasing Islamic art, rare Chinese maps, and golden treasures.
Even before the anniversary year 2016 arrives, “Looking East” opens on Oct. 30, for a run through Feb. 7. As its full title – “How Japan Inspired Monet, Van Gogh, and Other Western Artists” – indicates, the exhibit deals with one side of the mutual impact between Japan and the West since the country came out of isolation in the 1850s.
Although Impressionists and other French artists had important influence on Japanese art, “Looking East” shows how first the West’s fascination with “exotic Japan” put its indelible stamp on the works of Cassatt, Degas, and Gauguin, and others, besides Monet and Van Gogh. (A similar East-to-West sweep took place in classical music over the years, as evident in the works of Debussy in the 19th century to Lou Harrison a hundred years later.)
Coming from Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, some 170 works by Impressionists and post-Impressionists are paired with Japanese paintings and prints clearly serving as the inspiration. On the Japanese side, the artists include such masters as Kitagawa Utamaro, Utagawa Hiroshige and Katsushika Hokusai. Additionally, “japonisme” is shown in comparisons between bronze sword guards and paper stencils from Japan with metalwork by Boucheron, Gorham and Tiffany. A chair designed by Frank Lloyd Wright is set among Japanese objects with clear influence on Wright’s work.
After “Looking East,” the anniversary year will offer “Pearls on a String: Artists, Patrons and Poets at the Great Islamic Courts (Feb. 26-May 8); “China at the Center,” maps from China, showing the rest of the world at the edges (March 4-May 8); “Hidden Gold: Mining Its Meaning in Asian Art” (March 4-May 8); “Extracted,” Ranu Mukherjee’s work eclipsing boundaries, an anniversary-commissioned work of art drawing inspiration from California’s Gold Rush, the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the ancient text “The Classic of Mountain and Seas,” and the museum’s own collection (Nov. 6-Aug. 14); “Emperor’s Treasures: Chinese Art from the National Palace Museum of Taipei” (June 17-Sept. 18).
The anniversary season ends with “The Rama Epic: Hero, Heroine, Ally, Foe” (Oct. 21-Jan. 15, 2017). The show includes the story of and representations of Rama, the seventh avatar of the Hindu god Vishnu and king of Ayodhya, also considered the Supreme Being by some sects. The famous protagonist of the Hindu epic “Ramayana” is one of the popular figures and deities in Hinduism.