Unrivalled Splendor: The Kimiko and John Powers Collection of Japanese Art

Extraordinary Collection of Japanese Masterworks Presented in Landmark Exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, June 2012

Houston—March 2012—Collectors Kimiko and John Powers began buying Japanese artwork in the 1960s. Over the next four decades they amassed 300 objects, building one of the largest and most comprehensive collections of Japanese art outside of Japan. This summer, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (MFAH), will present selections from their holdings in Unrivalled Splendor: The Kimiko and John Powers Collection of Japanese Art, showcasing 85 works from June 10 to September 23. The last exceptional collection of Japanese art in private hands, the Powers Collection is renowned for its extraordinary scale and quality, and the exhibition provides a rare chance to see these remarkable examples in the Houston region.

“To have a selection of major masterworks from the Powers collection on view at the MFAH, just months after our new, permanent Arts of Japan gallery has opened, offers a wonderful opportunity for audiences in Houston to learn about and appreciate Japanese culture,” said MFAH director Gary Tinterow.

“The Powers collection is one of the three most important collections of Japanese art in the United States, with the Sackler and Freer Gallery at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington D.C. and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston,” added Christine Starkman, MFAH Curator of Ancient to Contemporary Asian Art. “Kimiko and John Powers demonstrated a singular vision of excellence as they built their collection, which is of the highest level of quality and importance.”

Unrivalled Splendor will exhibit some of the earliest known examples of Buddhist art in Japan; narrative scroll paintings; beautiful examples of calligraphy; screens embellished with gold and silver; sketches; sculptures; and objects of lacquer, pearl, and silver. This wide array, from courtly to popular works of art, reveals overlapping themes in Japanese art.

An illustrated, hardcover catalogue of the same title accompanies the exhibition, published by the MFAH and distributed by Yale University Press. It is the first book about this collection to be published in more than a decade, with previous publications out of print. The book includes a collector’s statement by Kimiko Powers; essays by Christine Starkman and Miyeko Murase, renowned curator and scholar of Japanese art; and entries on the 85 artworks in the exhibition written by John M. Rosenfield, Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Professor Emeritus of East Asian Art at Harvard University.

About the Exhibition 
Unrivalled Splendor: The Kimiko and John Powers Collection of Japanese Art is organized along eight thematic sections. The first, “Early and Medieval Buddhist Art,” demonstrates the influence of Buddhist ideas and their impact on art through breathtaking works, including one of the earliest examples of Buddhist art in Japan: an 8th-century sculpture of a Bodhisattva. “Guilded Verses: A Poetic Renaissance in Kyoto” features painted hand-scrolls, folding screens and other works created in the 1600s, when both classical court poetry and indigenous art forms were revived in Kyoto, the capital of Japan at the time. In addition to the re-birth of classical poetry, two important schools of painting also flourished in 17th-century Kyoto: the Tosa and Kano schools. In “Laying the Foundations: Tosa and Kano,” beautiful examples of hand-scrolls, hanging scrolls and folding screens will be on view to explore the importance of these two schools and the work created for patrons. Major Japanese artists who merged Tosa and Kano school influences with other styles, such as Soga Shōhaku (1730–1781), Itō Jakuchū (1716–1800) and Maruyama Ōkyō (1733–1795)—and his student Nagasawa Rosetsu (1754–1799)—are showcased in “Revitalizing the Atelier System.”

“The Scholarly Ideal” explores the Scholar-Amateur movement that came about in the 18th century. Inspired by a similar development in China, this group shunned academic painting. Instead, artists such as Ike no Taiga (1723–1776) and Yosa Buson (1716–1783) painted flora, fauna and calligraphies in a looser and more expressive style that drew upon past Chinese literati traditions. “Later Buddhist Art” revisits the influence of Buddhism in Japan since its introduction around 552; particularly, the ink paintings and calligraphic scrolls produced by Zen monks. The exhibition also showcases the work of artisans. In “The Popular Arts,” paintings include a pilgrimage mandala and humorous anecdotes or lighthearted portrayals of ukiyo (“the floating world”). The exhibition concludes with an examination of the impact of Western trade on Japanese art. “The Western World through a Japanese Lens” showcases representations of Westerners and their ships, as well as Japanese works influenced by Western forms of representation and perspective.

About the Powers Collection
John Powers (1916–1999) was a publishing executive until he retired, in his 40s, and devoted himself to collecting art with his wife, Kimiko. Their collections of Japanese antiquities and contemporary American Pop are widely recognized. The Powers discovered Japanese art by chance. On a stopover flight en route to India, John Powers visited the Tokyo National Museum and was stunned by what he saw. Thereafter, he and Kimiko spent some three months each year in Japan throughout the 1960s and ’70s, building their collection. The timing was ideal. The Japanese economy had not recovered from the war years, making the art more affordable, and the couple bought carefully. Their collection is now recognized as the most significant private collection of Japanese art in the Western world.

Kimiko Powers celebrates John Powers’ legacy by continuing to share the collection with the public. She writes in the exhibition catalogue: “John Powers’ passion, enthusiasm, and learning resulted in a collection of the highest quality. I do not think it would be possible to make a collection of this caliber today. It is my pleasure to share the beauty of these historical treasures with the people of Houston.” In addition, part of the Powers’ contemporary art collection will be on view this fall when the Powers Art Center—a memorial to the life of John Powers—opens in Carbondale, Colorado. The inaugural exhibition will showcase Jasper Johns’ limited edition works on paper.

Organization and Funding 
This exhibition is organized by the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.

Official Energy Sponsor: General Electric.

Additional generous funding is provided by: Luther King Capital Management; Macy’s; and The Japan Foundation.

Education programs for this exhibition are made possible by The E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Foundation.

Arts of Asia at the MFAH
A new suite of five permanent Arts of Asia Galleries at the MFAH was completed in February 2012, featuring the Arts of Japan; the Ting Tsung and Wei Fong Chao Arts of China Gallery; the Nidhika and Pershant Mehta Arts of India Gallery; the Indonesian Gold Gallery; and the Arts of Korea Gallery. The five galleries surround Cullinan Hall on the first floor of the Caroline Wiess Law Building, 1001 Bissonnet Street, totaling about 12,000 square feet.

About the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston
Founded in 1900, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, is among the ten largest art museums in the United States. Located in the heart of Houston’s Museum District, the MFAH comprises two gallery buildings, a sculpture garden, library, theater, two art schools, and two house museums.The encyclopedic collection of the MFAH has some 64,000 works and embraces the art of antiquity to the present.

Upcoming Exhibitions at the MFAH

  • Elegance and Refinement: The Still-Life Paintings of Willem van Alest
    March 11–May 28, 2012
  • Utopia/Dystopia: Construction and Destruction in Photography and Collage 
    March 11–June 18, 2012
  • Rembrandt, Van Dyck, Gainsborough: The Treasures of Kenwood House, London 
    June 3–September 3, 2012
  • Duncan Phyfe: Master Cabinetmaker in New York 
    June 24–September 9, 2012

For more information, please contact:
MFAH Communications