Imagined Neighbors: Japanese Visions of China, 1680–1980

March 16, 2024 – September 15, 2024
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Landscape (detail), Hosokawa Rinkoku (1782–1842), Japan, Edo period, 1835, handscroll, ink and color on paper, Freer Gallery of Art Collection, National Museum of Asian Art, Smithsonian Institution, The Mary and Cheney Cowles Collection, Gift of Mary and Cheney Cowles, F2021.4.11a–c

Freer Gallery of Art
Jefferson Drive and 12th St., SW
Washington, DC

First floor, Galleries 5, 6, 6a, 7, 8

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During the Edo period (1603–1868), feudal Japan was largely closed off from the outside world. For three hundred years, a loose movement of Japanese artists, often referred to as literati, turned to neighboring China—variably a source for emulation and a source of rivalry—for inspiration. Through painting and calligraphy, they created immersive environments in which artists and viewers alike could mentally withdraw from worldly affairs. As disparate and diverse as the literati movement was, its members were united by a common language that embraced diverse notions of “China”—a place both familiar and foreign, as much imagined as it was known. Throughout a period of modernization during the Meiji era (1868–1912) and after, when all facets of life in Japan were radically changing, China’s historic role in helping shape the fabric of Japanese history and culture remained a touchstone for Japanese artists, even in the context of imperialism and war.

Imagined Neighbors presents Japanese artworks from the Mary and Cheney Cowles Collection, given to the National Museum of Asian Art between 2018 and 2022. The Cowles Collection is arguably the largest and most comprehensive group of Japanese literati works outside of Japan. The paintings and calligraphy in this exhibition fuse reality with imagination and remain important to understanding the continuing, complex engagement of Japanese artists with China, to them both a real and an imagined place.