There’s something familiar about the young girl in Japanese painter Kishida Ryusei’s Portrait of Reiko. Her expression — a smug, sideways glance with a near smile — is strikingly similar to the one Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa wears. While both are revered as masterworks within the art world for capturing the essence of the period in which they were made, Reiko is far less recognizable to the average Westerner. That’s because the work has rarely left Japan.
On display from Feb. 16 to May 11, it will be a part of Remaking Tradition: Modern Art of Japan, which showcases more than 50 masterpieces of Japanese modern art, including six works like Reiko certified by the government as important cultural properties, on loan from the Tokyo National Museum. (CMA Japanese artworks will be sent to the Tokyo museum in exchange.)
“It’s the first major exhibit in the United States where people can actually see, on our home turf, many of the paintings these scholars have been talking about,” says Sinéad Vilbar, who takes over as curator of Japanese and Korean art this month.
Remaking Tradition explores the Western influences on Japanese art following American efforts to establish trade and diplomacy with Pacific nations during the mid-19th century. By late 19th century, artists both embraced and resisted Western ideals.
Japanese artists responded to the cultural shift with the emergence of a technique known as Nihonga or an updated version of traditional Japanese-style painting that can be seen in Yokoyama Taikan’s Mount Fuji Rising Above Clouds, a blue and gold folding screen. “He’s taking Japan’s most famous natural monument and showing it rising above this swath of clouds,” she says. “He’s really abstracting it and interpreting it through a more modern lens.”