Impressive selection of Japanese lacquer art at Asia > Amsterdam exhibition, Rijksmuseum

DSC01787The most impressive space of the exhibition Asia > Amsterdam, especially for Japanese art lovers, is undoubtedly the gallery where the big Japanese lacquer chests are on display. Everywhere you look, you are confronted with the splendor of the large size cabinets. An extraordinary collection has been brought together from all over the world. In the middle of the room is the  Rijksmuseum’s acquisition of two years ago: the 7.3 million euro Mazarin chest decorated with scenes from the Tale of Genji. Next to it is a chest of similar size, which was recently discovered in Moscow: according to Julia Hutt the chest was used to store furs and on the inside of the lid the name Cornelius van der Lijn has been inscribed. He was Governor-General of the Dutch East Indies in 1646-50.

The famous Van Diemen box of the Victoria and Albert Museum (named after the wife of Anton van Diemen, another Governor-General) is now also on display in Amsterdam. This box has been extensively researched and documented, but the information on the label is rather short. In fact it is a pity that we cannot see the interior of all the boxes through for example video or photo displays. The world inside these boxes remains hidden to the visitor and I think it would be interesting to learn more about the beautiful interiors of these pieces as well. I must admit though that the catalogue includes a few (and only a few) images of the interiors.

Japanse lakkistAn example of nanban lacquer from the early 17th century, is the large coffer from the Swedish royal collection. Characteristic for the nanban style is the rich use of mother of pearl inlays. In the catalogue the coffer is shown with its stand but in the exhibition without, which I personally prefer.
And if that is not enough, one can also admire a pair of cabinets from the collection of the Dutch royal family. These cabinets show the court journey of the Dutch to the shogun, passing Mount Fuji in the back ground. On the right side is a depiction of the artificial island Deshima in Nagasaki, where the Dutch resided during their stay in Japan. An almost identical design of Deshima can be seen on the cabinet from the Musée des Beaux Arts in Dijon.

Asia > Amsterdam has been curated in collaboration with the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts and the objects listed here above are only a small selection of the many beautiful pieces on display in the Rijksmuseum. The exhibition is dedicated to the luxurious works of art from Asia (not only Japan) which found their way to the homes of the Dutch wealthy families in the 17th century. Dutch painters, such as Willem Kalf, were equally fascinated with these objects from far away and depicted them in their still life paintings.

DSC01805Apart from the still lifes the exhibition also includes portraits of the main characters involved in the Asia trade. One of these portraits shows Cornelia van Nijenrode and her husband Pieter Cnoll, who was the first chief merchant of Batavia. Van Nijenrode was the daughter of a Dutch man based in Hirado and a Japanese courtesan.

Is there more Japanese art to see, apart from the magnificent lacquer pieces? Yes. Porcelain of course. And an extraordinary piece of samurai clothing: a vest or surcoat made of Dutch gilded leather and painted with flowers.
The exhibition successfully tells the story of the Dutch interest for Asian works of art in the 17th century and the Dutch trade with and in Asia and is certainly worth visiting.

A richly illustrated and heavy catalogue (333 pages) accompanies the exhibition and in 2016 it will travel to the Peabody Essex museum. Asia > Amsterdam is on display until 17 January 2016.

Jan van Campen (et al.), Asia > Amsterdam, Amsterdam: Rijksmuseum and Salem, MA: Peabody Essex Museum, 2015. ISBN  9789491714559, 333 pages, over 100 color illustrations.