Laughing Hotei and Wabi-style cup: Japanese treasures at the State Museum of Oriental Art

January 31

The Japanese exhibition at the State Museum of Oriental Art is made up of over 450 items narrating the development of Japanese art from the late 12th century to the early 21st century. Japanese art is closely linked with Buddhism that became an official religion as far back as the 6th century and which helped Japan establish closer ties with both China and India.

12th century sculpture of Bodhisattva Fugen

This sculpture carved from wood is a rare example of 12th century Buddhist plastic arts, and such pieces are seldom found in Russian collections. This exhibit is greatly valued.

The appearance of Buddhism in Japan dates back to circa the 4th century AD, and became a state religion in the 6th century. Bodhisattva, literally a person who has decided to become a Buddha, is called Fugen in Japanese.  Fugen is one of the two deities accompanying Buddha. He is called Samantabhadra which means Universal Worthy in Sanskrit, symbolises absolute compassion and patronises all those who have decided to profess Buddhism.   

Bodhisattva Fugen sits on top of a fabulous elephant with a lion’s tail and six tusks. The sculpture contains a relief showing them. There were no elephants in Japan at that time, but stories about this one blended nicely with Buddhist mythology. For example, a white elephant with six tusks entered the womb of Mahamaya Devi, the mother of Gautama Buddha, who had a dream about the animal that entered her womb through her right side. This is known as the Miraculous Conception in the Buddhist tradition.

The elephant’s monumental figure serves as a pedestal on which the deity’s lotus throne stands. Its foundation looks thin, and the lotus is slender, compared to the elephant.  Fugen sits on the throne, his hands clasped in prayer. One should note the body’s soft lines and intricate facial features. A high crown underscores the sculpture’s elongated proportions. The slim and agile figure beautifully reflects the deity’s merciful and noble nature.

Just like all other temple sculptures, this one was on and off being altered from the 14th century to the 19th century. However, it retains the spirit of the Heian period (794-1185), the heyday of the subtle and sophisticated culture of the Japanese Imperial Court.

The statue of Amida Buddha (Amida Nyorai) dating back to the 13th century is another example of wooden Buddhist plastic art. Its soft and subtle lines resemble those of sculptures from the Heian period.

18th century Hotei figure

Hotei is part of folk, rather than official, Buddhist tradition. Hotei, the God of Contentment and Happiness or the Laughing Buddha, ranks among the Seven Lucky Gods, revered by the people of Japan. Some of them came to Japan from India and China. Hotei’s image is based on that of the 10th century Chinese poet-monk Qiji. Unlike his brethren-in-faith who meditated inside monastery cells, he preferred to come in contact with people directly and to roam the boisterous and noisy city marketplaces. Wherever he showed up, everyone became excited and agitated, and people claimed that he brought good luck in trade and other affairs.

The name Hotei translates as Linen Bag because he never parts with this accessory. As legend has it, when someone asked him what was inside his bag, Hotei would reply: “The whole world.” This can be perceived as a bag for collecting alms, similar to those carried by Buddhist monks in China and other countries. But, of course, the people came to believe that the bag was full of wealth, happiness and good luck.

It appears that the sculpture was made at a workshop in Kyoto, the centre of ceramic production and Japan’s former capital. The figurine is partly covered with celadon glaze that originated in China where its green tone was associated with jade, the most precious stone of the country’s cultural tradition; and it was also called the Celestial Stone. Jade did not have the same sacred value in Japan, but celadon glaze was appreciated for its beauty and somewhat matt finish. It covers a hooded cape, a bag and a small tablet that Hotei is holding. The bare parts of the body, including his face, arms, feet and big round belly, are not glazed.

The sculpture from the collection depicts Hotei as a laughing character. His mouth is wide open, and wrinkles have formed around his eyes. All this creates a joyful, easy-going and slightly humorous expression. Deities like him were always depicted in a slightly grotesque manner; this allowed ordinary people to understand them better and to treat these deities as good acquaintances. 

18th century tea cup

Although this tea ceremony cup was also probably made in Kyoto, it differs completely from Hotei’s statue in terms of the technique and materials used to make it.

The cup embodies the Raku workshops style that evolved in Kyoto in the late 16th century. A potter named Chojiro Tanaka conceived this style and ushered in the famed Raku dynasty. Similar workshops operated in other cities, too. Their potters did not want to pass off their masterpieces for those of the Raku dynasty, and this merely showed that ceramists and tea ceremony enthusiasts viewed the Raku House’s cups as an ideal option.

The cup from the collection is covered with a black and slightly uneven glaze which is also often referred to as Raku to underscore the fact that its composition was invented precisely in this family’s workshop. The surprisingly simple and unobtrusive piece reflects the special esthetics of the Japanese tea ceremony and its tableware, rather than the inadequate professionalism of craftsmen. Called Wabi meaning Modesty and Poverty, this esthetic concept did not prioritise eye-catching and brightly decorated items. They did not divert attention from the tea ceremony and created a feeling of harmony, calm and tranquility. However, these cups could be very costly.

Apart from the cup, the Museum has on display other tea ceremony items, including various water vessels, hookahs and incense boxes.  There is a replica of a traditional Japanese tea house in the museum, with tea ceremony items and a garden in front of the entrance.

The cup features the image of a butterfly and the Kanji夢 (Mu/Yume) meaning Dream, Vision. These symbols allude to a legend about a philosopher who had a dream showing himself as a happy and carefree butterfly fluttering among flowers. He wanted to know whether this butterfly knew that it was a philosopher. After waking up, he asked himself another question: “Am I the philosopher Zhuang Zhou who had a dream that he was a butterfly, or am I a butterfly who dreamed of being the philosopher Zhuang Zhou?” Quite possibly, the owner of this custom-made cup ordered it because he was expecting to entertain a philosopher, a wise man or a connoisseur of Chinese literature and poetry. 

17th century colour print by Toshusai Sharaku (20th century reprinted version)

A craftsman named Toshusai Sharaku, one of the most enigmatic Japanese print designers, made over 140 prints in just eight months between 1794 and 1795. His prolific work and subsequent mysterious disappearance imply that his name was the pseudonym of another craftsman, perhaps even the great Katsushika Hokusai himself.

The print shows actor Sawamura Yodogoro II as the Monk Kawatsura Hogen. Most prints, signed by Sharaku, are part of the yakusha-e genre and depict the Kabuki Theatre’s actors wearing their makeup. All of them are quite unique. Some show characteristic features, others are grotesque and focus on protagonists’ individuality, their external specifics and facial expressions. 

Collections all over the world contain very few works by this master. The State Museum of Oriental Art has a 20th century replica, copied from surviving prints. Quite often, the prints were faked, so as to meet the rising Western demand for them. This particular colour print was made at a famous centre/workshop in Tokyo. Its specialists study the works of the greatest masters and create copies in order to preserve outstanding masterpieces. The authentic and accurate print depicts even the smallest details. Tremendous in-depth research preceded its creation. Incidentally, the centre’s representatives helped the museum in Moscow acquire this item.

The Museum also displays prints by such masters as Katsushika Hokusai, Ando Hiroshige and Utagawa Kunisada. Their collection includes an 18th century print called A Beauty with a Badminton Racquet from the famous series Five Beautiful Faces. 

The Eagle on a Pine sculptural composition and a screen (1896)

The eagle has tremendous significance in Japanese culture and symbolises strength and power. Many Daimyos (Princes) used its image on their coats of arms and also decorated their castles and palaces with eagle figures. This sculptural composition is of great importance in the collection. Not only does it highlight Japan’s applied-decorative art, but it also narrates Russian-Japanese relations in the late 19th century.

His Majesty Mutsuhito / Meiji, the 122nd Emperor of Japan, presented The Eagle on a Pine sculpture and the screen to Russian Emperor Nicholas II on the occasion of his coronation in May 1896.

Famous Japanese sculptor Kaneda Kenjiro made this masterpiece. This was a far from easy commission because he had to assemble about 1,500 pieces of ivory on a wooden frame. His sculpture has been studied in great detail. Specialists from the State Museum of Oriental Art dismantled and restored the sculpture. They were able to find out how it was created and assembled, the sequence of attaching ivory “feathers” to the wooden frame, and how the frame was marked, so that each “feather” would occupy a preset place.

The eagle is sitting in front of a screen on which a tempestuous sea had been sewn at the Nishijin Manufactory, one of the famous textile companies in Kyoto. The waves appear to glimmer. This effect was achieved by highly skilled professional Japanese weavers and embroiderers.


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