June 9, 2023, San Francisco — Dr. Jay Xu, the Barbara Bass Bakar Director and CEO, is delighted to welcome audiences to The Heart of Zen at the Asian Art Museum—Chong-Moon Lee Center for Asian Art & Culture, an exclusive showcase of two equally unmissable masterpieces: Persimmons (popularly known as Six Persimmons) and its companion Chestnuts. Cloistered in a Kyoto temple, Six Persimmons is a storied, centuries-old ink painting originating from China that was once considered the ultimate expression of Zen Buddhism. Designated as Important Cultural Properties in 1919, these exceptional artworks, rarely on public display, will be leaving Japan for the first — and perhaps only — time ever for this extraordinary special exhibition.
In tune with the seasonality of the late fall fruits they depict, and to safeguard these delicate works from light overexposure, first Six Persimmons and then Chestnuts will be presented individually, one at a time, for only three weeks each, Nov. 17–Dec. 10, and Dec. 8–31, respectively (there will be one weekend when both paintings are on display together, Friday, Dec. 8–Sunday, Dec. 10).
“Captivating in their simplicity, The Heart of Zen offers visitors a one-in-a-lifetime encounter with two paintings so precious, so celebrated, and yet so seldom seen that most of the world has only ever experienced them in reproductions,” says Jay Xu, the Barbara Bass Bakar Director and CEO. “I’m thrilled to invite audiences from around the world to connect directly with such seminal artworks. The Heart of Zen is only the first in what we plan to be a series of exhibitions that showcase a range of masterpieces from Asia, placing them on equal footing with iconic works from the Western canon.”
Attributed to the 13th-century monk Muqi, Six Persimmons and Chestnuts are exquisitely subtle compositions painted in Song-dynasty China. At some point in the 15th or 16th century, they crossed the ocean to the hands of Japanese collectors who displayed them at tea gatherings, before being donated in the early 1600s to Daitokuji Ryokoin Zen temple in Kyoto, where they have been revered ever since. Apart from a brief exhibition at the Miho Museum outside Kyoto in 2019, both Six Persimmons and Chestnuts typically remain out of sight for those who are not members of their home temple community.
To people living in medieval and early modern Japan, the name Muqi was synonymous with Chinese-style painting (kara-e). Muqi was regarded with an almost unparalleled respect by the Japanese, who designated his mode of brushwork with the honorific term “priest’s style” (oshō-yō). Few painters in Japan escaped Muqi’s influence. This was especially true among artists of the Kano school, the large and influential collective that led the country’s production of ink painting in the Chinese style (kanga) for nearly five hundred years up to and through the 19th century, when Six Persimmons and Chestnuts in particular caught the attention — and admiration — of Western scholars who came to consider them as preeminent examples of Zen artworks.
The Heart of Zen is organized by curators Laura Allen and Yuki Morishima and is a joint effort by Ryokoin and the museum, to share these two works in an intimate setting, while providing a rare glimpse into the world of a Japanese Zen temple. The exhibition explores the history and significance of these paintings, their place in temple life, and their eventual elevation as classic examples of Zen art. In conjunction with the exhibition, sessions of zazen meditation will be offered as a means of cultivating a state of peaceful awareness (check museum website for program details starting in November).
“The Heart of Zen also has a uniquely personal dimension,” says Laura Allen, Senior curator, Japanese art. “The exhibition was conceived when Ryokoin temple abbot Kobori Geppo visited the Asian Art Museum in 2017. After experiencing a deep sense of compassion for San Francisco’s underserved populations — those who suffer from addiction, illness, and lack of housing — the abbot resolved to find a way to help.”
Subsequently, museum director Jay Xu traveled to Japan to visit with the Abbot in Kyoto and secure this extraordinary loan. “In conversations with the Abbot, it became clear that we could nurture empathy by sharing this pair of exceptional paintings with our city,” says Xu. “He hopes that visitors to the exhibition will experience a moment of harmony and peace to take with them as they face the tribulations of daily life.” The exhibition was paused during the early years of the pandemic, but will now coincide with the Asian Art Museum’s blockbuster exhibition Takashi Murakami: Unfamiliar People: Swelling of Monsterized Human Ego that opens in September, ensuring contemporary art enthusiasts will also encounter these history-defining artworks.
“You might never see these paintings again,” says Xu. “The short window we have to experience these artworks echoes the brief time we have on Earth to make a positive impact on those around us. By allowing audiences to directly contemplate these humble yet powerful ink paintings, shared with us in the spirit of utmost generosity, The Heart of Zen reflects what we do best at the Asian Art Museum: offering a once-in-a-lifetime chance to connect the past with our lives today.”
Japanese Tastes in Chinese Ceramics: Tea Utensils, Kaiseki Dishes, and More, a second exhibition presenting 17 historic Chinese and Japanese ceramics from the Kyoto National Museum, will coincide with The Heart of Zen, and elaborate on the role of Chinese art in Japanese tea culture.
About the Asian Art Museum
Located in the heart of San Francisco, the museum is home to one of the world’s finest collections of Asian art, with more than 20,000 awe-inspiring artworks ranging from ancient jades and ceramics to contemporary video installations. Dynamic special exhibitions, cultural celebrations and public programs for all ages provide rich art experiences that unlock the past and spark questions about the future.
Lead Image: Persimmons, attributed to Muqi (Chinese, active 13th century), hanging scroll; ink on paper. Collection of Daitokuji Ryokoin Temple. Important Cultural Property. Photograph © Asian Art Museum. (Detail.)