Some of us in the Western Hemisphere have this annoying habit of spinning Asian art and culture into one big ball of twine. It starts early, in our schools, which have tended to ignore the East in favor of Eurocentric art, and art history books haven't helped much either, generally marginalizing everything non-Western.
We're missing out on a lot. A small exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts, "Birds, Beasts and Blossoms in Asian Art," gives us a tantalizing glimpse into the richness and diversity of China, Japan and India and the artisans who were lifting sculpture and ceramics into sophisticated art forms while Europe was slogging through the Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition and the bubonic plague.
Most of the 54 works are from the museum's permanent collection; some have long been on view in its Asian gallery. More were brought from storage to fill the Stenquist gallery next door, the small, dark jewel box of a space with lighted, recessed cabinets that glamorously display smaller objects.
The exhibition spans the fourth through 20th centuries but is in no way comprehensive or even especially representative of general eras and movements, so my advice is to appreciate the individual beauty of the works without worrying too much about their context. One generalization emerges: Though almost everything here was created to be functional, aesthetic appeal was of equal importance. The most utilitarian objects seem imbued with an obligation to be lovely.
A Japanese scholar's writing accoutrements from the 18th century include a brush holder that in most Western artists' studios would be a jar or tin can; here it is of carved ivory. Cups from which he might have sipped tea are also beautifully carved, from jade, in the shape of peaches, their bottoms gracefully blooming into peach blossoms. Even the charcoal sticks that were mixed with water for ink are embossed with gold leaf.
A simple earthenware jar made in China sometime between the 10th and 13th centuries is swirled with glazes that look downright contemporary. A 17th century Japanese inro _ the small box men used like a wallet, suspended from a cord at the waist (no pockets in kimonos) _ is formed from wood lacquered multiple times, then carved with a sumptuous genre scene of elaborately patterned textiles hanging on a rack. The multiple components of a picnic box fit together as an intricate puzzle of lacquered wood emblazoned with gold and silver blossoms and bamboo.
But in most cases being functional and beautiful is still not enough. Fish on porcelain bowls don't refer to the food they will offer up; they are symbols of fidelity and fertility, often given to newlyweds. And roosters on plates are not part of a breakfast service; they referenced virility.
Some of the most beautiful art created in Asia during a period concurrent with Europe's Middle Ages was, like Western art, religious. Tenth- and 11th century fragments of temple carvings from India glorify Hindu deities such as Shiva and his wife, the goddess Parvati, who lounges affectionately in a sandstone carving, being watched by their sons Karrikeya and Ganesha. In a bronze statue, Shiva is in his famous pose, one leg elegantly lifted, his four arms and hands spread in gestures of creation and destruction as he dances, surrounded by a ring of flame.
One of the choicest works is by Ando Hiroshige, one of the great masters of Japanese printmaking. A Beauty and Puppies in the Snow is one of his rare paintings on silk and, within the formal conventions of Japanese art, he captures a charming human moment. Another silk scroll, by Hashimoto Kansetsu from the early 20th century, recalls Diana Vreeland's dictum that elegance is denial. He pictures a tanuki, a creature resembling a raccoon, with an economy of brush strokes and leaves most of the fabric unpainted.
That same impulse animates most of this work, not spareness so much as the serene confidence of knowing how much embellishment is just enough.
Lennie Bennett can be reached at (727) 893-8293 or lenniesptimes.com.
"Birds, Beasts and Blossoms in Asian Art" is at the Museum of Fine Arts, 255 Beach Drive NE, through Feb. 20. Museum hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday and 1 to 5 p.m. Sunday. Admission is $8 for adults, $7 for seniors and $4 for students. Most of the special exhibitions galleries are closed for renovation, so through Thursday, admission is reduced to $5. (727) 896-2667.