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MFA reopens its Arts of Japan galleries after six years of closure

With one of the most comprehensive collections of Japanese art in the world, the museum rededicates the space with Buddhist monks from Japan’s Miidera temple Saturday.

Anne Nishimura Morse, the William and Helen Pounds Senior Curator of Japanese Art, sits for a portrait in one of the newly renovated galleries at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.Danielle Parhizkaran/Globe Staff

The Museum of Fine Arts has what may well be the pre-eminent collection of Japanese art in the world outside Japan itself, with 100,000-plus pieces spanning more than a millennium. So, you might fairly wonder, where is it? Aha. Here and there, both in the museum and not (the collection is on the wish list of museums all over the world, to whom it routinely lends). At the MFA right now, “Songs from Modern Japan,” an exhibition of prints and graphic design drawn mostly from its in-house holdings, runs until September. Last year, “Hokusai: Inspiration and Influence,” a sprawling, contemporary-inflected take on the 18th- and 19th-century Ukiyo-e master, occupied the museum’s vast special exhibition space, chock-full of the collection’s many wonders.

But a permanent home for those wonders, well, that’s been absent on museum grounds since 2018, when the Japanese galleries were closed for what turned out to be a much longer-than-expected redo (the museum had planned to reopen them in 2020, but was delayed by the pandemic; two small spaces remained open until last year, while the main gallery became a public conservation studio for the MFA’s Japanese Buddha sculptures). That changes, finally, on Saturday when the MFA’s remade Arts of Japan galleries will open to the public with a rededication ceremony by a delegation of Japanese Buddhist monks from the Miidera temple in Japan, who are traveling to Boston for the occasion (museum visitors can view the ceremony by simulcast in the Remis auditorium at 1 p.m.). In the galleries’ Japanese Buddhist Temple Room, a shadowy, contemplative space that holds an array of huge, centuries-old wooden Buddhas, the monks will welcome the collection back to life.

The print gallery can be seen from the Japanese Buddhist Temple Room within the Arts of Japan galleries at the Museum of Fine Arts.Danielle Parhizkaran/Globe Staff

Buddhist faith holds reincarnation as a key tenet, a perpetual process of rebirth, enlightenment, and elevation; to strain the metaphor, the MFA’s rejuvenated Arts of Japan galleries are the product of lessons accumulated since its very beginnings. The museum started collecting Japanese art in 1876, a half-dozen years after its founding; the new galleries reflect practical wisdom as well as higher learning.


In the central space, a pair of spectacular 17th- and 18th-century folding screen paintings, both safely behind glass, face each other across an expanse of blond wood floor. In another time, said the MFA’s senior curator of Japanese Art, Anne Nishimura Morse, they sat out in the open, in the middle of the room. “This was a huge screen showcase,” she said, smiling. “But kids would play and hide between them.”

The new spaces won’t be quite so interactive, for obvious reasons, but she hopes an invitation no less engaging remains. In a large glass case, three opulent silk robes from the 18th century made for Japanese Nō performances — slow, subtly meditative theatrical pieces, among the oldest forms of drama in the world — hang draped on wood armatures, splayed open to better see the intricate embroidery in the cloth.

A traditional Japanese Nō performance captured on video at the museum of Fine Arts, Boston
A traditional Japanese Nō performance captured on video at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. (Courtesy of the MFA, Boston)

Nearby, a video of a Nō performance plays quietly, the low, chantlike vocal tones of its performers, masked and layered in robes two and three deep, rumble in the stillness of the space. “It’s a very understated form of theater,” Morse said. “But it’s in the details, the slowness, the slightest movements, that the meaning comes through.”


Japanese art has been a pillar of the MFA’s holdings from almost the very start, alongside its core holdings in ancient Egyptian and Roman art. The galleries themselves, with their tall, dark wood posts meant to echo traditional Japanese architecture, were part of the original building. The museum started collecting in 1876, Morse told me, but really began in earnest when Salem native Ernest Fenollosa joined the MFA in 1890 as the head of what is now its Art of Asia department and brought 1,000 of his own paintings along with him.

Fenollosa had spent the previous dozen years studying and teaching art and philosophy in Japan; when it was time to come home, the emperor asked him to act as the country’s unofficial cultural emissary. Fenollosa had also found kinship with local Brahmin and physician William Sturgis Bigelow. The two men had spent time together in Japan, initially lured by Edward Morse, a Boston scientist who had gone to Japan in 1877 to study brachiopods.

The MFA ran a public conservation lab for the restoration of its Japanese Buddha sculptures from 2018 to 2023 in its Arts of Japan galleries during the galleries' long-term closure.Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Enamored of the country’s art and culture, Fenollosa’s intellectual pursuits endeared him to the imperial government and made him an early leader in the field back home. Bigelow’s wealth cast him in a different role. In 1911, after decades of amassing untold riches, he gave the museum a gift of 40,000 — yes, forty-thousand — works of Japanese art from his own collection, instantly making the MFA a western world leader in the field. The gift was shepherded by Okakura Kakuzo, an adviser and curator of Japanese and Chinese art at the museum from 1903 until his death in 1913. All three men were Buddhist adherents; Fenollosa and Bigelow are buried at Shiga Prefecture’s Miidera temple, home to the visiting monks.


The new galleries open with about 200 pieces — from painting to textiles to large-scale sculpture to a pair of shimmering swords from the 13th century that “were used to do what they were made for,” Morse said. “We can tell in some cases that the handles were shortened at some point for different kinds of warfare.”

Details of a Nō robe of the karaori type with a design of peonies on cypress fence on display in the Arts of Japan galleries at the Museum of Fine Arts.Danielle Parhizkaran/Globe Staff

To turn to the math for a moment: Two blades are on view; the MFA has more than 500. The 200 pieces in the gallery on opening day are one-fifth of one percent of what the museum owns. Objects will rotate in and out frequently, Morse said, but the opening display will have time to settle in. “People need to get used to it being here again,” she said.

The new galleries are refit with some of Morse’s thinking, cultivated over years of closure. All the text in the temple room is gone, so nothing stands in the way of the glorious Buddhas. Read, if you like, on an interactive touch screen just outside the door, but inside eschews chatty exposition for serenity of experience. And the high child-deterrent barriers meant to keep potential climbers at bay are gone, too, in favor of more subtle, still-necessary barricades.


New to the galleries is a chapter on the intricacies of Japanese tea, a ceremonial and aesthetic realm of its own, crucial to understanding the culture, but overlooked at the museum for years. “We’re starting to get there,” she said. “[Edward] Morse and Okakura studied tea, so they knew. But tea objects are the most difficult to acquire. They may have been the objects people in the 19th century, when they were there, were least likely to give up.”

Details of the “Scenes from the Nakamura Kabuki Theater,” 17th century, by artist Hishikawa Moronobu on a six-panel folding screen with ink and gold-leafed paper on display in the Arts of Japan galleries at the Museum of Fine Arts. Danielle Parhizkaran/Globe Staff

For opening, the displays are notably sparse, with some of the museum’s best works elegantly arrayed with ample space between them. The screens in the central gallery are at the very top of the museum’s greatest-hits list. One, “Waves at Matsushima,” an 18th-century, six-panel piece by Ogata Korin, unfolds a wildly expressive landscape of golden waves thundering against blocky island cliffs rising above them. The crisply graphic waves contrast with the soft vertical volumes of the islands; the scene brims with a seductive visual tension, their earthy tones awash in a gilded sea.

Across the floor and behind glass, “Scenes from the Yoshiwara Pleasure District,” Hishikawa Moronobu’s late-17th-century pair of six-panel screens, depicts the bustle of a Japanese city’s more illicit quarters — kabuki theater, brothels with geisha. The dense detail — men gawking out the window at a bawdy scene, drama unfolding in all quarters — are obscured in part by banks of golden cloud blotting out the action. It shrouds the unsavory action at ground level with a veil of mystery and wonder at what lies beneath.

The main gallery in the MFA's Arts of Japan spaces. From left: Kano Motonobu, "Sogi," first half of 16th century; Katsushika Hokusai, "Woman Looking at Herself in a Mirror," c. 1805; Soga Shohaku, "The Eight Revelers," c. 1770; Ogata Korin, "Waves at Matsushima," screen, 18th century.Danielle Parhizkaran/Globe Staff

On an adjacent wall, three long scroll paintings tease at the greater glory of the museum’s holdings. At the center, “Woman Looking at Herself in a Mirror,” painted in 1805 by Katsushika Hokusai, is one of the collection’s key treasures. The painting is sharply precise but still brimming with drama; a woman’s back is turned to the viewer, a letter crumpled in her right hand. She’s draped in a densely patterned kimono, testament to the artist’s singular skill. At the bottom of the frame, a mirror reflects the woman’s face in a mournful swoon. Morse speculated that the image portrays a woman freshly jilted by a lover, and the misery that ensues.

Last year’s “Hokusai: Inspiration and Influence” was as big a showcase as the collection had enjoyed in years; but the painting, one of the museum’s — and Hokusai’s — very best, was notably absent. “I was saving it for this,” Morse said with a smile.


Permanent display. At Museum of Fine Arts Boston, 465 Huntington Ave. 617-267-9300, www.mfa.org.

Murray Whyte can be reached at murray.whyte@globe.com. Follow him @TheMurrayWhyte.