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Elegant Perfection

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Most art exhibits transcend attempts to pigeonhole the specific feelings they evoke. At the very least they’re abundant with technique and style. The different vibe emanating from Elegant Perfection rings of grace and serenity.

Elegant Perfection: Masterpieces of Courtly and Religious Art from the Tokyo Museum is currently on display at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston through April 6 and offers more than two-dozen objects from the Tokyo Museum’s permanent collection. The history of the Tokyo Museum began in 1872. Over the years the organization has survived earthquakes and world wars, and hosted exhibitions including the Mona Lisa (1974) and King Tut (1965). Later this year the MFAH will host another Japanese exhibit, Unrivaled Splendors: The Kimono and John Powers Collection of Japanese Art (June 17 through September 23). The current exhibit includes Japanese cultural properties and national treasures that are only on tour for a short duration.

The majority of items depict Japan’s relationship to Buddhism, some tracing the origins of the religion into Japan. Ancient scrolls show Chinese characters and their evolution into the classic and current Japanese script. There are ceremonial bells, ceramics, poetry, five-pronged vajra clubs, incense burners and musical instruments. One look at a double reed mouth organ, from the Edo period in 1690, and you can just imagine the “heavenly tones” that it emits.

A scroll from the 12th century, Daito Saiiki ki (Record of the Chinese priest Xuanzang’s Journey to the West) sits under glass. “The text is inscribed in the form of a sutra copy in alternating lines of gold and silver on indigo paper.” One can only be amazed at the midnight blue parchment, on the right page the Buddha in the center surrounded by bodhisattvas in a circle around him, and the left page unfurling a scroll that has been preserved for over 1000 years without any discernable loss of color.

The centerpiece in the room revolves around an 11th century “seated Dainichi Nyorai, a central buddha in the Esoteric Buddha tradition.” Over five feet high including base and figure the statue looks like metal yet is lacquered cypress wood. Much of the gold leaf has peeled indicating that brand new the object shone like the sun.” The perfectly carved face observes classical features right down to the ear lobes, distance from brow to jaw, moustache, eyes and a couple of other things. His hands are formed in a mudra I’ve never seen. The left hand is turned out and forming a fist with the forefinger extended. The right hand is turned in, grabs the left forefinger with the bottom three fingers and grasps the top of the left forefinger with the right forefinger and thumb, the latter resting on top. Mudras, as you may well know, along with breathing activate certain parts of the brain. Here we have a vision, preserved and in a humidity controlled glass cell, of enlightenment from a millennia gone just waiting to be rediscovered.

- Michael Bergeron

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