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Tea Leaves

Japan's museums trapped between light and shadow

How a great artistic culture takes the glow out of precious works

At Japanese museums, screens are often displayed behind glasses and lit from overhead.

For visitors to Japan, direct experience of its myriad arts can both exhilarate and disappoint. No one fails to be enchanted by the great temples and shrines, the quiet, serene gardens and the subtle blending of nature and architecture. A design on a box of matches can seem artistically inspired in a uniquely Japanese way, and the often-bizarre modernism of buildings, gadgets, dress and popular entertainment provides endless fascination because there seems to be no limit to imagination or expression.

However, visitors to the country's many museums may be less satisfied when they see traditional paintings, badly lit and often obscured by glass panels, which appear flat and boring compared to those they have seen in temples and palaces. They will be mystified by objects such as tea bowls of incalculable value that appear cold and lifeless in protective glass cases, their artistic merit difficult to perceive.

Traditional Japanese sculpture, which is largely religious, is often an exception: with the advent of modern fiber-optic lighting it can be seen far better in museums than in the smoky gloom of temple recesses. But from constant visits over the decades, my conclusion is that most museums in Japan seem to ignore the vital importance of correct illumination for precious art works.

The problem is particularly noticeable in the display of old screen paintings. Many are flamboyantly painted, reflecting the exuberance and booming economy of the early Edo Period (1603-1868) when they were crafted, with their subjects depicted in ink and colored pigments on gold leaf.

Such screens were intended to gleam in the recesses of palaces and mansions, picking up available daylight -- a magical property of gold -- through white paper shoji screens, or lit by candles and paper lanterns at night.

All Japanese paintings -- hanging scrolls, folding screens and sliding doors -- were painted to be seen in lateral light, never from overhead. Yet even in the most prestigious Japanese art museums, it is disappointing to see splendid screens illuminated from above, causing the gold to appear flat, like machine-made candy-wrappings. The paintings looking forlorn, as if aware of their bizarre, unnatural circumstances.

Three-dimensional objects suffer from the same insensitivity. I still wince at the memory of an otherwise splendid exhibition of tea utensils and flower containers at the Nezu Museum in Tokyo in 2012, in which overhead illumination picked out bright reflections on the tops or lips of objects so that they looked like a display in a jewelry shop, casting dark shadows below.

The sides of each object all but vanished in the contrasting shadows, so that neither design nor surface texture could be seen. When challenged, one museum curator said -- in a tone implying this was not a subject for discussion -- that the lighting system was "state of the art."

Something is obviously very wrong when such insensitivity remains uncontested. I find myself asking, can nobody see any more? And why is it, in this land of perfectionism, that lighting appears to be an afterthought? It is difficult to see how ignorance can be a valid excuse, since curators are well-trained in art history. Nor is the importance of lighting an arcane skill: it is on widespread display in fashion and advertising photography -- and even in the superb catalogs of the offending museums.

Security is advanced as the reason for putting artworks behind glass, but there is almost always a raised area between the viewer and paintings in Japanese museums (and visitors are normally well-behaved). As for illumination, the easiest solution is to display paintings in natural light opposite windows, fitted with translucent blinds if necessary.

If the building layout does not allow for this, other lateral lighting is fine, and need not be expensive. Folding screens or fusuma doors look wonderful in the light of a simple stand lamp, or lateral incandescent lighting can be controlled by detectors that sense the proximity of viewers. Modern bulbs can reduce ultraviolet radiation almost to zero, so light damage to artworks is not the conservation problem it once was.

There seems to be no argument in favor of unnatural overhead lighting in museums except that it is the accepted standard. But art lovers can help. Observing that good paintings sing in sympathetic lighting, but lament without it, readers might gently challenge the staff of museums they visit in Japan -- or anywhere else where they get the lighting wrong.

Progress toward a more rational approach is likely to be glacial, at best. In time, though, we may be able to see these paintings as their creators intended.

Michael Dunn is a Japan-based writer, curator and art lecturer.

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