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Asian Art Museum (San Francisco)


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Located across the street from City Hall in downtown San Francisco, the three floors of the museum are devoted to all “Asian” arts.  The term “Asia” is used, but discouraged, as it does not accurately reflect one place. The region includes lands as diverse as southeast Asia, Persia, Turkey, Himalayas, China, Korea, Japan, Philippines, Indian and Vietnam. Their arts are divided into several wings of the museum, spanning works that predate known time to pieces created a few decades ago, spanning about 6,000 years of documented history with more than 18,000 pieces in the collection.

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Now called the Chong Moon Lee Center for Asian Art and Culture, the museum’s location in San Francisco is no accident, as this city has one of the most culturally diverse Asian communities in the world. The building was the city’s main public library in 1916, but was converted to this museum in 2003. The most notable collection donation was made by Chicago industrialist Avery Brundage in the 1960’s, and still continues to represent a significant portion of the “masterpiece” works in the museum.

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During our visit, the Oscher, Hambrecht and Lee galleries were filled with a special exhibit, “Looking East: How Japan Inspired Monet, Van Gogh and other Western Artists.” The exhibit (organized by the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston), contained 170 pieces arranged in side by side comparisons. Predominantly, they showed Japanese wood block prints from the late 1600 to late 1700’s and how these works were brought to Europe by traders. It is interesting that Japan was ensconsed in self-imposed isolation for centuries, and only opened to trade in the mid-1800s.  The prints had wide spread exposure, and were owned by many of the impressionist artists. These artists purchased wood block prints, studied them extensively, and then incorporated various styles, techniques, or color palates into their own drawings, paintings, carvings, decorative arts, textiles, sculpture, design, cutlery, graphic arts, often experimenting well beyond their usual comfort zones.

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The collection’s descriptions and discussions highlighted the tremendous influence “Japonesme” items had in everyday society. Women wanted to be seen wearing Japanese silks and designs in their portraits; architects incorporated Japanese-influenced shapes and materials, housewears designers included Japanese themes in silverware, crockery, flower design, and linens. There was a mad frenzy of collecting all things Japanese. I have included a few side by side comparisons here as points of interest (non-flash photography is allowed throughout the museum) including paintings by Monet, Renoir, Cassatt, among others, and immediately adjacent a work by a famous and prominent Japanese artist from the 1700’s. These juxtaposed Western and Eastern works of art were the most interesting to see.

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We were also fascinated by  a gilded bronze statue of the Seated Buddha from China dated 338. It is the first example of a Buddha that carried a specific date. Ironically, this piece is in a very small alcove, almost something you could miss.  There was an amazing ritual vase, created in the shape of a hippopotamus, which has engravings inside that help date the piece to a very early period as well. This piece is in very good condition.

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(Fourth century Chinese Buddha statue)

There was a very nice metal money tree (weather vane), created in multiple layers, and showing remarkably good preservation of the vanes on the tree. There are many large statues, created in polychrome wood or metal, that are in surprisingly good preservation, and highlighted in the various display cases throughout the galleries.

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Some of the sculptures, especially from India, are monumental, while several of the jewelry pieces of jade are quite small. We appreciated that the museum provided magnifying glasses to study the detail of some pieces. This was particularly nice when looking at the various etchings from the elephant exhibit. The nice thing about this museum is the extensive contextual history they provide around each piece. Thus you not only learn about the piece, but understand why it was important, why it was created, and more about the symbolism and importance of the piece.There was a unique elephant exhibit, showing how elephants were included in Asian art, how they were depicted in lithographs and prints of the late 1800’s, as well as seeing the various carvings and elephant jewelry used in ceremonial events. Elephants without Number, shows the importance they hold in Buddhist, Jain and Hindu religions, including rituals and ceremonies.

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Overall, a very informative, interactive, and instructive experience about Asian Arts in an amazing setting. All of this for only $15 for adults (free if you are active in the US military). Allow at least 3-4 hours for a proper visit.

A few more pieces from the museum's collection follow:

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Images (25)
  • Asian Art Museum Facade
  • Painted Birds
  • Internal wall displays on glass
  • Falcon East
  • Falcon West
  • Haystack East
  • Haystack West by Monet
  • Lake East
  • Lake West Georges Seurat
  • Mountain East
  • Mountain West
  • Statues of Chinese Buddha from 336
  • Statues of Warriors
  • Pots and Pans
  • Devil-Prince Statue
  • Devil Irovy Carving
  • Diety statues
  • Bronze from India showing Western influence
  • Diagonal Japanese Block with Money Diagonal Tree
  • Display cabinet of vases
  • Close up of one of the Cloisonné vases
  • Close up of a Cloisonné fish
  • Flowers Eastern
  • Flowers Western
  • Bridge between East and West (Merged)

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Comments (3)

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I haven't visited this great museum since it was in a wing off the old de Young in Golden Gate Park.  I think it's about time I visited again and can make it a pilgrimage to City Hall, too, where my grandmother worked for years as secretary to the Board of Supervisors.  Thanks for this, Lester, beautifully done.

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