Through important recent acquisitions and an exciting upcoming exhibition, the Art Institute of Chicago is cementing its reputation as a leader in Japanese art. A close professional relationship and personal friendship between James Rondeau, President and Eloise W. Martin Director of the Art Institute, and Winnetka resident Roger Weston, longtime Chair of the Asian Art Committee and an Art Institute Voting Trustee, is at the heart of these transformative developments.
Rondeau and Weston first traveled to Japan together in 2012, two years after the 2010 opening of the Art Institute’s Roger L. and Pamela Weston Wing and Japanese Art Galleries. Rondeau, then the Art Institute’s Chair and Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art, was interested in exploring Japanese contemporary art while Weston admired traditional Japanese art. The men compromised creating a trip that Rondeau fondly recalls as “one day my stuff, one day your stuff.” During the days, the pair alternated the study of traditional Japanese temples and gardens, with the study of contemporary Japanese art shaped by the traumatic legacies of World War II. The pair also alternated stays in onsen ryokan, traditional Japanese guesthouses featuring steaming hot springs, with stays in modern high-rise hotels.
This trip laid the foundation for the later acquisition of several pieces from Japan’s famed Gutai School, a collection of contemporary artists who were guided by the mantra of “to do what no one has done before.” These paintings, found on the second floor of the museum’s Modern Wing, form the only room in an American museum to be devoted to Gutai. “It is only in the last decade that we have tried to embrace a more global perspective within the contemporary and modern collections. Our acquisitions from the Gutai School are representative of our commitment to a global collection,” observes Rondeau.
Rondeau is particularly proud of works by Kazuo Shiraga and Fujiko Shiraga, founders of the Gutai School and husband and wife. “Kazuo Shiraga would be suspended by a rope over a canvas that was surrounded by heaps of paint. Using his bare feet as brushes, Shiraga created a violent ballet of expression and abstraction on the canvas,” Rondeau explains while admiring Shiraga’s magnificent work Golden Wings Brushing the Clouds Incarnated from Earthly Wide Star and pointing out a signature foot landing. The painting is flanked by a work by Fujiko Shiraga’s that features her characteristic use of broken glass. Unfortunately, a studio littered with broken glass proved incompatible with a husband who painted with his bare feet. Fujiko, therefore, ended her career after only ten years. She spent the remainder of her life as her husband’s assistant and never returned to her own artmaking. As the first North American museum to exhibit her work, the Art Institute has rescued Fujiko Shiraga from obscurity.
In 2015, Rondeau joined Weston at the Ueno Royal Museum of Tokyo for the opening of an exhibition of 130 pieces from Weston’s collection of hand-painted ukiyo-e paintings; a collection regarded as one of the finest in the world. Continuing a theme of blending art appreciation with cultural experiences, Weston was able to secure a highly coveted reservation for four at Sukiyabashi Jiro, a ten-seat, sushi-only restaurant tucked away in a Tokyo subway station. “In Chicago, this would be the place where you would buy newspaper and a pack of gum but there it was the location of one of the world’s greatest sushi chefs,” Rondeau explains with a smile.
Weston’s interest in Japan began in his childhood. “My father worked for Abbott Laboratories his whole life. I remember as a young boy he would leave for a long time, sometimes three weeks or a month, to visit Japan. He would come home from these trips with unusual gifts, telling us about eating raw fish for breakfast. For a young kid, it was really intriguing,” Weston remembers. Since the 1970s, Weston has visited Japan over 50 times sometimes as often as three times a year.
Weston’s connection to the Art Institute also began in childhood. “My mother was an artist, and she used to take me to the Art Institute all the time. She was the head of the North Shore Art League for a while and taught at the Lake Bluff school district. So, the Art Institute has been part of me for a long time.”
In 2018, approximately 150 pieces of Weston’s ukiyo-e collection will be exhibited at the Art Institute. The hallmark of this collection is its bijinga or paintings on paper or silk of beautiful women. The delicacy and precision of these paintings are striking; the ultra-fine strokes used to define the luxuriant hair, delicate features, and elegant garments beautifully illustrate the evolution of fashion and beauty ideals over a period spanning some 300 years. “I am really excited to have Westerners and Americans see this show. No one has ever seen a show like this; they may have seen a piece of ukiyo-e or two or if they are lucky, three or perhaps five pieces. But no one has ever seen 150 pieces of ukiyo-e displayed in a chronological fashion,” explains Weston. “The timing of this exhibit is a reflection of the Art Institute’s commitment to the expansion of its Asian art collection. James wants growth; he would be out of his element if he had to live with a stagnating collection. He is the ideal director to lead this expansion because he is so open minded and intellectually curious. This curiosity will serve him well as a director and us well as an institution,” Weston concludes.