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Japanese culture, with its rich history, folkloric heroes and warriors, and time-honored customs, has been a focal point of global fascination for centuries. In particular, the spirituality of the Japanese traditions has inspired works of art, architecture, politics and ways of life.
“Shinto: Discovery of the Divine in Japanese Art” is an exhibition exploring the reverence of Shinto deities called kami through carefully curated pieces spanning the Heian period (794-1185) through the Edo period (1615-1868). Exclusive to the Cleveland Museum of Art, the exhibition was about 10 years in the making, with scrolls, sculptures and treasures from Japanese shrines and temples, including several works designated as Important Cultural Properties by the Japanese government.
The exhibition is a collection of works that is only available at the Cleveland Museum of Art during this special showing. “Shinto: Discovery of the Divine in Japanese Art” is the first major international loan exhibition dedicated entirely to Shinto art from collections in both the United States and Japan, and this specific group of ancient, sacred and historical works will never be seen together again in public. Several of the pieces are made from organic materials such as silk, paper, wood and lacquer and are so sensitive that they need to be rotated out midway through the exhibition to maintain preservation.
About 125 works of art in different media including calligraphy, painting, sculpture, costume and decorative arts grace the exhibition hall on the lower level of the CMA. The exhibition is broken into six themes that illustrate the living tradition of people engaging with kami in everyday life:
The final room of the exhibition is interactive. In the custom of Japanese New Year’s celebrations, visitors write down expressions of their own gratitude and hopes on a card and hang them with others’ on a shrine-like structure.
“The way that the rituals are done may be particular to Shinto, but the concepts and ideas and philosophies behind them we find in many traditions the world over, and of course outside of religious tradition as well — the idea of hopes and aspirations being recorded, and the idea of recording your gratitude for things is something that is universal to human beings,” said Sinéad Vilbar, the exhibition’s curator and curator of Japanese art at the CMA.
“By asking people to think about in their own lives the expressions of their own hopes and what they’re thankful for is giving us a really lovely insight into our own community and the kinds of things that are important to us here in Cleveland.”
Kami are quite similar to ancient Greek gods in that they have personalities, jobs and responsibilities, and are described in early Japanese histories as the creators of the islands of Japan. They have been a part of Japanese religious tradition for many centuries, descending from the heavens to Earth only in special places in nature such as mountains, forests and waterfalls. As Buddhism came to Japan in the 500s, kami were venerated in tandem with Buddhist deities as their avatars.
There are elements of other kinds of traditions such as star warship, mountain asceticism, and rituals similar to what people think of today as Daoist practices that are folded together and harmonized into a parallel tradition in today’s Japanese culture that is represented in the artworks of the exhibition.
There aren’t many neighborhoods in the country that pack as much art and culture into a few city blocks as University Circle. The Cleveland Museum of Art offers some of the best collections in the world, while the Museum of Contemporary Art showcases the most talented artists working today. Step back in time to explore the city’s history at the Cleveland History Center or go even further back to the time of dinosaurs at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History.
End your night taking in a performance from the world-renowned Cleveland Orchestra at Severance Hall, and you might just want to grab a nightcap and stay the night. As always, you can enjoy world-class accommodations that are a short walk or rideshare away from some of the best culture in the country.
Cover image: “Horse Race at the Kamo Shrine,” 1615–50. One of a pair of six-panel folding screens, ink and color on gilded paper; image: 176.5 x 337.3 cm. The Cleveland Museum of Art, Purchase from the J. H. Wade Fund, 1976.95.
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