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e-Magazine

Museums with Japanese Art

Japanese dolls at the newly renovated Unterlinden Museum in Colmar

Historic town center of Colmar
Historic town center of Colmar

Colmar, the little Venice of Alsace, is a picture perfect medieval town of nearly 68,000 inhabitants. Situated near the foothills of the Vosges with rich and abundant natural resources, it is a key region that the French and the Germans have fought three major wars in an attempt to claim it as their own for centuries.

Now in more peaceful decades, Colmar is an attractive destination for many visitors. In addition to the impressive Germanic heritage buildings and gastronomic delights (Colmar is said to be the birthplace of foie gras), Colmar has a strong artistic heritage including being the birthplace of master artist, such as Martin Schongauer (1448-1491), the German master painter and engraver admired by many including Albert Dürer, and Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi (1834-1904), who is most famous for designing the Statue of Liberty. The town’s charming atmosphere has welcomed many including Miyazaki Hayao, who modelled Colmar and its surrounding area to develop Sophie’s village in his full feature animation film, Howl’s Moving Castle (2004).

Unterlinden Museum
Unterlinden Museum

The more recent visitors to Colmar includes the 28 exquisite Japanese art dolls created by Ohno Hatsuko (1915-1982) brought for the special exhibition held at the Unterlinden Museum.

The recently renovated museum was the perfect temporary home for the dolls, which counts Colmar as the 14th international city to be exhibited in. Friends and supporters of SISJAC may remember that these dolls were exhibited at the Assembly House in Norwich in 2012. The dolls in the newly designed toy gallery room of the Unterlinden Museum were on display from early September to 30 October 2016 to demonstrate the beauty, artistry and history of Japanese art dolls.

While there are a few Japanese objects in the Museum’s permanent collection, Unterlinden Museum is most famous for its Isenheim Altarpiece. The grand altarpiece boasts a magnificent ensemble of sculptures made by Nicolas de Haguenau and the double-sided, double-winged panels painted by Matthias Grünewald, an important Renaissance painter of religious works. In Christian context, the altarpiece wings would normally be closed except on holy days. However, the Iseneheim Altarpiece is exhibited as unhinged paired panels so that the visitors could inspect each of the eight imageries depicting scenes from the story of St Sebastian and St Anthony. In addition to the altarpiece and other outstanding works of religious art, Unterlinden houses a collection of local cultural artifacts, a small collection of Japanese objects, and a substantial body of modern and contemporary art including works by the charismatic artist, Jean Dubuffet.

Ohno Hatsuko’s dolls were exhibited in the newly renovated Museum’s toy gallery
Ohno Hatsuko’s dolls were exhibited in the newly renovated Museum’s toy gallery

Ohno Hatsuko’s dolls may have found the women’s history of Unterlinden Museum particularly heart-warming as it sits on the former site of a Dominican convent, established as a nunnery by two aristocratic Colmar widows in 1252. The building’s name derives from where the convent sat: a place known as Sub Tillia (under the linden trees, or Unter den Linden). The convent grew to gain both spiritual and material prominence over the next centuries to peak in the 15th century.

By the 16th century, however, the convent and its influence were beginning to wane, though the 18th century saw a resurgence to generate enough means to afford alteration works on the original buildings such as creating an additional story over the cloisters. After the convent closed its doors as a nunnery in 1792, the Sociéte Schongauer headed by Louis Hugot in 1847 protected the site from being demolished. They did so effectively by housing important works of art and cultural resources in the former convent to lay the basis to what would eventually become the Museum.

Unterlinden Museum itself has recently gone through a three-year renovation work that lasted until December 2015. As part of celebrating its reopening complete with an additional building to expand the exhibition space, Ohno Hatsuko’s dolls were invited to create a link between past and present and to celebrate the importance of creative ties between the East and West.

Mori Mika, the daughter of Ohno Hatsuko and curator of the exhibition, talks to a local journalist about the history of art doll tradition in Japan and about her mother’s creative inspiration
Mori Mika, the daughter of Ohno Hatsuko and curator of the exhibition, talks to a local journalist about the history of art doll tradition in Japan and about her mother’s creative inspiration

Surprisingly, the East and West ties in Colmar is particularly strong in Colmar largely thanks to the existence in this City of the Centre for European Studies on Japanese Arts (CEEJA), a key cultural organization promoting Japanese studies and culture in Alsace and the powerhouse behind the Ohno Hatsuko doll exhibition. For the Sainsbury Institute, it was a delight to join the celebration of the memorable exhibition in early September when Ohno Hatsuko’s daughter and the exhibition curator, Mori Mika, gave a special lecture to a large audience about the dolls. In her concluding remarks, Mrs Mori spoke of her mother’s creations: the dolls, which she created using her imagination, and Mrs Mori herself, presented in the form of a 3D scanned figurine, which she created through giving birth. The lecture was followed by a reception where Mrs Mori’s close friend and Tea Master, Mrs Uchino, held a special traditional Japanese tea service and tasting sessions for the attendees.

Kaz Morohashi
Research, Planning and Public Relations Officer

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