Unlike the smaller format of the thousands of Ukiyo-e prints that cycle quarterly through the Art Institute’s Asian galleries, a six-panel folding Japanese screen, six-feet high and twelve long can dominate a room (especially if you’re sitting on the floor) and immerse a viewer into their imaginative visions. In the museum’s permanent collection galleries, such as the darkened Ando Gallery, only one or two are on display at any one time. The special exhibition, “Beyond Golden Clouds,” includes thirty-two of them, with a few of the best ones coming from the St. Louis Art Museum, where the show will travel next. Still, the sampling spans Japanese history from the chaotic Warring States period of the sixteenth-century up through the end of the twentieth. There’s a surprising variety of themes, from Zen landscapes to Chinese calligraphy to fantasy narratives to devotional Bodhisattvas. There’s even one screen (c. 1660) that faithfully records every poem written one fine day by ladies in the court of the emperor’s daughter.
Then, of course, as we enter the twentieth-century, it just gets wackier, with Japanese versions of modern life, psychedelic art deco and eventually conceptual art. Like the tapestry show from last winter, this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see an important part of the Art Institute’s collection that is usually off view, and this time around the museum is making it very accessible for closer study, as every single piece appears as a zoomable image on the web site, and visitors are allowed to use cameras. It’s also a happy coincidence that throughout this summer, the museum visitor might wander over to the newly opened Modern Wing to see “Cy Twombly: The Natural World,” an exhibition of wall-size drip paintings that appear like Japanese botanical screens that have, perhaps, endured a heavy thunderstorm. There is nothing in either exhibit that is not pleasant and enjoyable–but still there is a kind of formal intensity and compelling imagery in some of those seventeenth-century Japanese screens that goes way beyond decorative. (Chris Miller)
Through September 27 at the Art Institute of Chicago, 111 S. Michigan.