It goes without saying that a trip to the Rijksmuseum would not be complete without a good, long stare at Rembrandt’s The Night Watch masterpiece. But there is so much more to this colossal Amsterdam museum than famous Dutch painters and Renaissance artworks (and if you’re already planning a visit, you’ll want to know how to make the most of it); it’s also home to a carefully and beautifully curated Asian art collection. From the impressive Temple Guardians and Hokusai’s The Great Wave Off Kanagawa, to impeccably maintained Japanese lacquer art, there are plenty of pieces worth a good, long stare in the Asian art wing. Just ask the Rijksmuseum’s Head of Asian Art, Menno Fitski.
A passionate fan of Asian art, especially Japanese art, Mr. Fitski is the ideal guide for those of us whose interest is piqued by the intricate details and stunning craftsmanship for which Asian art is known. In this interview, Mr. Fitski shares deeper insights into Japanese art, the theme of nature in Japanese art and more.
What does being the Head of Asian Art at the Rijksmuseum involve?
Well, I used to be curator of the Japanese and Chinese art collections at the Rijksmuseum, before I took on this role. As a curator you’re in charge of looking after the collection to the extent that you’re almost part of it – or it’s a part of you. You initiate exhibitions, you purchase the items for the museum, you write about the items on display – most things you read in a museum are written by a curator. Above all, as a curator you love the objects you put in an exhibition, and that’s why you work in a museum – you care passionately about those objects and you want to share them with the world.
As the head of Asian Art at the Rijksmuseum, I oversee my fellow curators but I also get to work on exhibitions. My colleague Jan Dees and I are working on an exhibition about Japanese lacquer art for next year at the moment.
Oh, a new exhibition! We’ll come back to that. What made you want to be a curator?
Some people might assume that I have a background in art history, but my big secret is that I don’t have a background in this at all! I actually studied Japanese language and culture. After my studies, I went to Japan and when I saw the art there, I thought, “This is fantastic.” This is what I want to do.
What are some of the most salient features of Japanese art?
Attention to detail and attention to the everyday is a very salient feature in Japanese art. I really like this aspect of Japanese art, because I personally like to look after my objects and I like to own beautiful things. In Japanese art, the level of finishing is extremely high and it’s very important in Japanese culture, too. Even everyday objects are treated to a high level of detail. Japanese art often involves everyday objects, a Japanese lacquer box or a netsuke (a small toggle used to help hang a decorative case from the sash) are good examples of this commitment to making even the ordinary or the everyday into something beautiful.
What are some of the more prominent themes in Japanese art?
Nature is the subject of a lot of Japanese art, as it’s such a big part of Japanese culture. Before the 6th century, which was when Buddhism came to Japan, a religion existed (later referred to as Shinto) where gods and deities housed in nature and in natural phenomena – such as a mountain, special rock formation or a beautiful tree. For example, there’s a legend in Japan about a famous poet who was exiled from the city and his favourite prune tree followed him into exile. Of course, everyone knows the story is not actually true, but it shows there is a real appreciation for all things living.
To kill a cherry or a prune tree would be considered a very serious task; the Japanese would prefer to look after their trees. Nature is seen as something that should not only be harvested, but respected as well. This is probably why there is such respect for it in Japanese art.
So, there’s a lot of nature in Japanese art. How is that depicted?
Nature, especially the different seasons, is a prominent subject in Japanese art. You can see that in Japanese lacquer especially, as nature is almost always depicted in some way. People and buildings are featured too, but most Japanese lacquer art celebrates natural subjects – like the different seasons. There’s a distinct definition between the seasons in Japan so the progress of nature from one season to the next, or even within one season, is often depicted in Japanese art.
You mentioned that you’re working on an exhibition about Japanese lacquer art right now. Can you tell us more about that?
Yes, I’m developing an exhibition about lacquer with Jan Dees, an expert on Japanese lacquer art. He and his partner René van der Star have built a collection of lacquered objects from 1890-1940. The exhibition will be shown in the Rijksmuseum in the summer of 2021.
Why does the exhibition focus on this period in particular?
During this period in Japan there was a lot of development in Japanese lacquer art. Before 1900, there was great focus on the technical skills involved in Japanese art; extremely delicate black and gold lacquer objects with an incredible finish were really celebrated. But at the beginning of the 20th century, there was a big wave of modernisation. This was because salons or official art exhibitions, like those in France and the rest of Europe, became more popular in Japan.
Initially, lacquer wasn’t included in the art section of these salons, as it was seen as part of the crafts and agriculture section. The people who created Japanese lacquer art hated this, they wanted to be a part of the art section! The directors of these salons claimed that lacquer was not innovative enough, that it was too traditional. And this started a kind of emancipation struggle in Japanese lacquer. With the art of Japanese lacquer being so traditional and particular, it was a very difficult process to modernise. So, what you see between 1890 and 1930, and in the exhibition that we’ve created, is the shift from traditional designs and colours to new colour palettes and new motifs.
Luckily, it wasn’t for nothing: in the 1930s, Japanese lacquer art started being exhibited in the art section of salons in Japan.
How were the designs in Japanese lacquer art modernised?
The colours, the motifs, geometric patterns; so many new elements were introduced. So much was changed and yet remained the same. For example, they still used traditional Japanese motifs, but they used them very differently. For instance, the design would still involve flowers, but they were stylised and made much bigger in comparison with the original designs. The shift is very clear to see. The writing box in this video about Japanese lacquer art is an example of early lacquer. And the image below would be an example of the modernised Japanese lacquer art:
For those of us who don’t have an expert’s eye when it comes to lacquer, what should we focus on when appreciating a work of Japanese art?
When you come into the museum, you have to leave the world outside and change your perspective, so you can appreciate the fine details. Japanese lacquer is made of tens of layers of lacquer, with intricately inlaid pieces of gold, silver and mother-of-pearl. When you look closely, a new world opens up. And that’s really what our exhibition is about: to lose yourself in this wondrous miniature universe.
When you come to see our exhibition or any exhibition of Japanese art, my advice would be to settle down, take your time and allow yourself to be carried away.
The Great Wave Off Kanagawa is probably the most famous Japanese artwork, and this print is in the collection of the Rijksmuseum. Can you tell us why it’s so special?
It’s very decorative and it’s highly stylized. And that’s what Japanese art often does; it stylizes nature into a beautiful shape.
You also see the grandeur of nature in Japan through this print. Japanese nature can be overpowering and it’s all present. The print beautifully communicates how our lives can change at any moment because of nature. Man is small and nature is big, and you can see that by the tiny people in the boat and how they’re completely overpowered by the force of the sea.
Finally, the perspective of the print is so interesting. Western perspective is very linear and mathematical, but in the Great Wave there’s a huge amount of perspective. It’s almost as though you’re looking through the wave at Mount Fuji. A print with the iconic Mount Fuji in the background – everything you’d want from a Japanese artwork!
What are some of your favourite artworks in the Rijksmuseum?
We have two sculptures in the Rijksmuseum, the Temple Guardians, and they are incredibly powerful. They have become firm Rijksmuseum favourites with a lot of people. Artworks in permanent exhibitions in museums can become a friend. So, you’ll come to a museum to see a new exhibition, but you’ll always go past your favourites, your friends. And I think the Temple Guardians have that quality: you want to go back to them, just to say hello.