Celebrating the arts of Japan at the Chester Beatty Library, Dublin
One hundred years ago in 1917, the New York-born mining magnate Sir Alfred Chester Beatty (1875–1968) visited Japan. Already a keen collector of Western and Islamic manuscripts, Beatty was entranced by the glittering scenes captured in painted handscrolls and albums set out for his perusal by Japan’s art dealers. Acquiring many exquisite narrative and religious works for his growing library, Beatty’s passion for Japanese art continued to flourish on his return to his London residence and over the decades that followed he brought together a magnificent collection of painted and printed works.
Beatty’s internationally significant collection of manuscripts, books and other artworks today forms the heart of Ireland’s Chester Beatty Library. Established by Beatty in Dublin in the early 1950s, the Library was placed in trust for the Irish nation upon his death in 1968. Now presented as an art museum in the grounds of Dublin Castle, Beatty’s Library stands as one of Ireland’s national cultural institutions. The breadth of its unique collections—which span Europe, the Islamic world, South and East Asia—guide the Library’s mission to foster cultural understanding and appreciation among diverse and global audiences.
In 2017, the arts and cultures of Japan achieved a new prominence in Ireland with the celebration of the 60th anniversary of diplomatic relations between these two nations. On 9 January, the Chester Beatty Library was awarded the Japanese Foreign Minister’s Commendation for its own contribution to the promotion of the understanding of Japan through academic exchange and the preservation, conservation and exhibition of Japanese artworks. Japan has also figured prominently in the Library’s programme of exhibitions and events in this anniversary year, marking this important occasion and the centenary of Beatty’s own trip to Japan.
One of the highlights of the Library’s collections are the surimono woodblock prints collected by Beatty under the guidance of print-specialist Jack Hillier in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Literally meaning ‘printed things’, surimono were not produced for sale to the masses but privately commissioned for exchange among friends. Many surimono were commissioned by poetry circles that flourished in Japan during the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Sensitive combinations of verse and image, these prints offer an elegant insight into a world of literary wit and playful allusion. As artworks borne of collaboration, the Library’s collection of surimono offered the perfect medium to celebrate the friendship between Japan and Ireland. Featuring more than 80 works, The Art of Friendship: Japanese Surimono Prints (3 March – 27 August 2017, supported by the Japan Foundation and the American Friend of the Arts in Ireland) was enjoyed by over 130,000 visitors.
The Japanese collections at the Chester Beatty Library have benefitted greatly from partnerships with Japan in the fields of digitisation and research, from catalogues prepared by Professor Sorimachi, Kōdansha and the National Institute of Japanese Literature, to digitisation under Keio University’s Humanities Media Interface (HUMI) Project and that undertaken by Professor Akama Ryo and Ritsumeikan University’s Art Research Center. However, the narrative handscrolls for which Beatty’s Japanese collections are renowned also present significant challenges in terms of the specialist conservation they require.
The in-focus exhibition Preserved in Partnership: Treasures of Japanese Art (open until 7 January 2018) highlights collaborations in this field, featuring four painted scrolls conserved with support from Japan. From the consummately elegant Genji Words and Pictures conserved at the behest of the Imperial Household, to the playful Poetry Contest of the Zodiac Animals and Kano Sansetsu’s exquisitely tragic Chōgonka conserved courtesy of the Art Research Foundation, and the action-packed Tale of Ōeyama conserved with funding from the Sumitomo Foundation, these Edo-period handscrolls unfurl to reveal tales of courtly romances, brave deeds and extraordinary encounters. This special exhibition was opened on 8 July 2017 by H.I.H. Princess Takamado, who emphasised the far-reaching significance of the Library’s collection: a significance highlighted once more at the beginning of August, when the Library played host to a distinguished group of visiting scholars for an international research symposium focused on Japan’s narrative scrolls.
The collections assembled by Sir Alfred Chester Beatty possess immense scope for further research, display and engagement. 2018 will also be an important year for the Library as it marks the 50th anniversary of Beatty’s remarkable bequest. With this firmly in mind, the Library has embarked on a fresh programme of digitisation with a view to launching a new website and online collections database to enhance access to this significant resource for the general public and scholarly communities across the world. There can be no doubt that Beatty’s legacy to Ireland will continue to grow and develop, unlocking the potential of this precious resource.
The Chester Beatty Library
Dublin Castle, Dublin 2
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