`The Arts of Japan'. The Metropolitan Museum opens a new gallery for rotating exhibition of some 15,000 objects

It's impossible for an art lover not to wax enthusiastic over the Metropolitan Museum. Not only is much of its art of the very highest caliber, it runs the gamut from the most ancient to the most modern, encompasses almost all cultures, styles, and movements, and does so in a building so huge and sprawling that to see everything in it would require days, if not weeks, and the stamina of a professional athlete. The last decade, especially, has seen a dramatic expansion of the museum's facilities for the exhibition of everything from 19th-century European painting and major African and other ``primitive'' art to historical American and traditional Chinese works. And now, hard on the heels of the Metropolitan's inauguration of its 20th-Century Wing in February comes the opening of a new exhibition area for Japanese art.

``The Arts of Japan'' in the Sackler Galleries for Asian Art, is spread out over 11,000 square feet divided into 10 units especially designed to provide settings for Japanese art. In keeping with the spirit of such art, each of these exhibition spaces contains only a few choice items selected from the Metropolitan's holdings of nearly 15,000 Japanese objects. These, however, will be rotated on a regular basis to give the public a clearer indication of the depth and range of the museum's collection.

The visitor enters this special area through a doorway from the Douglas Dillon Galleries for Chinese Paintings and is immediately confronted by a large and dramatic 12th-century Dainichi Buddha seated on a lotus pedestal and maintaining a meditative position. Made even more impressive by its raised dais - which symbolizes Mt. Sumeru, the mountain believed to mark the center of the Buddhist universe - this figure both dominates the entrance area and sets the proper note for the largely chronological display of paintings, sculptures, screens, textiles, ceramics, armor, prints, and other precious items proceeding from it.

The historical range of the objects on view - a few go back to Neolithic times - is impressive and illuminating, especially since each piece is allotted sufficient space for it to establish both its identity and its place within a particular style or period. Since considerable effort was made to position everything within its appropriate historical and architectural context, the viewer finds little difficulty in entering into the spirit, not only of a totally different culture, but of distant times as well.

This is particularly true in the case of a meticulously crafted reconstruction of a Momoyama period (1569-1615) shoin, or scholar's study, modeled on a guest room in a temple near Kyoto. Its walls are made of sliding screens covered in gold leaf, with one four-panel screen decorated with a startlingly bold rendering of an old, gnarled plum tree. The main focus here is a recessed alcove for the display of art, the base of which is a single, beautifully grained, 12-foot slab of wood cut from the heart of a centuries-old tree.

Nearby, and dominating the gallery given over to the arts of the Edo period (1615-1868), is Ogata Korin's famous screen painting, ``Irises and Bridge.'' Its sparkling colors and relaxed composition serve as the perfect foil to the taut drama of the same artist's two-fold screen, ``Rough Waves.''

Other outstanding items include an 8th-century segment of a Buddhist scripture; a small 11th-century bronze of Zao Gongen, a fierce Shinto deity; a handsome suit of armor from the Edo period; a stunning 18th-century ceremonial robe decorated with the images of bamboo executed with ink, gold leaf, and gold powder; and a graphic hanging scroll of a scholar-painter by an unknown artist of the Muromachi period (1392-1568).

Of special interest is ``Water Stone,'' a sculpture of deep red and black basalt especially designed for the center of the galleries by the contemporary American sculptor Isamu Noguchi. Water rises from the stone's center and forms a thin sheet on its top before rolling down its sides and trickling into a bed of white stones taken from the Ise River, the site of one of Japan's most sacred Shinto shrines.

Finally, the visitor passes through a small reading and viewing room where information on various aspects of Japanese art and culture is available. This room and the rest of the installation were funded by grants from the Japanese government and by gifts from numerous companies and individuals. All grants and gifts, which totaled more than $4 million, were received through the Japan Foundation.

Buddhist book illuminations

Another excellent, if considerably more specialized, display of Eastern art can be seen at the Asia Society here through June 7. ``The Word and the Image: Buddhist Book Illuminations,'' is the first in-depth exhibition of the miniature paintings and illustrations that adorn Buddhist books and scrolls and demonstrates how Buddhist imagery developed and was interpreted by different cultures as the religion spread from India throughout Eastern Asia.

Among the more than 100 objects on view are illustrated sutras, or scriptures; elaborately carved covers and containers; sutras copied onto palm leaves, birch bark, ivory, paper, and silver and illuminated with gold, silk embroidery, and lacquer; and artists' sketchbooks, demonstrating the making and copying of texts.

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