Tricksters and Fools

March 28, 2013

Journey To The West

It’s almost April Fool’s Day, and while we won’t trick you (yet…), a lot of popular characters in legends across Asia would be happy to help! In many cultures, tricksters and fools are popular figures in fables, legends and other stories, often providing a subtle or overt lesson on proper conduct. Today, we’re looking at some well-known archetypes from Japan, China and Central Asia.


In Japan, the fox (or kitsune) is a common trickster character often identified as having nine tails. Often after food or vengeance, kitsune usually target men, sometimes even appearing as a woman. Foxes are also portrayed as tricksters in many Chinese and Korean stories, and scholars have also drawn parallels to Native American coyote legends. Kitsune are featured in many classic noh, kabuki and other traditional Japanese plays telling classic legends and folktales. One such legend is that of Tamamo-no-Mae, a particularly vengeful kitsune who transforms into a beautiful woman to catch the eye of Emperor Konoe. The emperor mysteriously falls ill, and after consultation with his priests and astrologers is told that Tamamo-no-Mae is a kitsune and cause of the illness as part of a plot to take the throne. She immediately leaves the palace and the emperor sends his best warriors and hunters after her, who eventually kill her in fox form. Today, the kitsune figure is alive and well in many contemporary manifestations, including video game characters like Tails from Sonic the Hedgehog and Ninetales and others from the Pokemon series.

monkeyMonkeys are also common trickster figures throughout the world, found in stories from India, Brazil, and other regions. In China, the monkey king Sun Wukong is the subject of the classic novel Journey to the West (summarized in this previous post and pictured at top). Sun Wukong has a variety of special powers including great strength and speed, the ability to assume many different forms and clone himself, and control the elements. After gaining these powers through Daoist study, Sun Wukong  became increasingly proud as he vanquished a range of mythological creatures, ultimately waging war on Heaven itself. Then, Buddha intervenes and imprisons Sun Wukong, who is not released until the monk Xuanzang finds him five hundred years later. Throughout the rest of the novel, Sun Wukong is both an intelligent and powerful asset to Xuanzang’s cohort and a troublesome trickster who often gets out of hand. In one part of the story, he attempts to borrow a magic fan to put out a mountain fire, but is turned down by the princess who owns it. Determined to get the fan, Sun Wukong transforms himself into a gnat to be swallowed by the princess, and then kicks and punches from the inside in attempt to coerce her. She instead gives him a fan that only makes the fire worse, and Sun Wukong transforms into her husband in another attempt to get the fan. When the real husband returns, he transforms himself into Sun Wukong’s comrade and offers to carry the stolen fan, thus recovering it for his princess.

Hoja (or Hodja) is a well-known human character from Central Asia and the Middle East, and is associated with Turkey today. Sometimes a trickster and sometimes a fool, Hoja’s plights and escapades often serve as humorous fables illustrating correct conduct in Islamic society. In one story, Hoja was wandering the marketplace when a stranger approached him and slapped him in the face. Angry, Hoja brought the stranger to the judge and demanded compensation. The stranger and the judge being friends, the judge ordered his friend to only pay a small amount in restitution. “This small amount is sufficient payment for a slap?” Hoja asked the judge. The judge nodded, and Hoja slapped him in the face. “If that is the only punishment, then you may keep my payment,” he said, and left. In a more foolish story, Hoja saw the reflection of the moon in a well. Panicked that the moon had fallen there, Hoja rushed to lower a bucket into the well to rescue it. After much tugging, Hoja pulled too hard, landing on his back staring up to the sky. “I may have hurt myself,” he says, “but at least I got the moon back where it belongs.”

These tales of tricksters and fools are a fun way to learn more about the stories behind many of the artworks in our galleries. On April 6, our storyteller Sunny Stevenson will be sharing Hoja tales and more at Silk Road Storytime. This great program is for all ages, includes a craft and a snack, and is completely free! ~CM

Images: Mask of Kitsune (fox), Japan, Wood, Gift of Hubert H. Weiser, 1982.58.30
Monkey god, China, 1800s, Porcelain and glaze, Gift of Harvey House, 1976.35.12


Harari and History

March 21, 2013

The Four Sleepers On April 5, we’re excited to open the new exhibition Focus on the Subject: The Art of the Harari Collection. This exhibition will run through  March 30, 2014 in the Frank and Toshie Mosher Gallery of Japanese Art, and includes a full object rotation in October to accommodate a greater number of objects and protect them from extended exposure to light.

The renowned Harari Collection of Japanese Edo (1603–1868) and Meiji (1868–1912) era paintings and drawings is one of the most significant groups of works on paper at Pacific Asia Museum. Amassed in London during the 1950s and 60s by Ralph Harari, the collection includes ukiyo-e (“pictures of the floating world,” recently seen in our exhibition Masterpieces of Tsukioka Yoshitoshi); important paintings and sketches by Hokusai, Hiroshige and their schools; paintings by Kano, Tosa, Nanga, and Shijo schools; and decorative paintings including fans. In the 1980s, Pacific Asia Museum acquired the majority of this collection with the support of several generous donors. Previously, objects from this large collection have been featured in the exhibitions 40 Years of Building the Pacific Asia Museum Collection in 2011 and Reflections of Beauty: Women from Japan’s Floating World in 2006, among others.

Daruma Carrying a CourtesanFocus on the Subject: The Art of the Harari Collection
features selected works from this group, and shows how Japanese painters and artisans shared their appreciation for certain subjects like landscapes, physical beauty, poetry and more. These recurring themes found in the paintings are also found elsewhere in the Pacific Asia Museum collection in objects like ceramics, textiles, lacquerware and sculpture. By looking at a few of the finest examples of Harari Collection paintings alongside related objects, you’ll see these themes from multiple perspectives for a fuller understanding of Japanese art and culture.

As mentioned above, key objects in the exhibition include several examples of ukiyo-e. One such work is Daruma Carrying a Courtesan Across a Stream by Ogawa Ritsuo (1663-1747) (at left). Daruma is the Japanese name for Bodhidharma, the Indian monk who is believed to have taken Buddhism from India to China in the 6th century C.E. In Japan, Daruma is regarded as the founder and patriarch of Zen Buddhism and is often depicted as a sullen monk with large, staring eyes and wearing a red robe as seen here. In the Edo period, his image often appeared in ukiyo-e paintings and prints beside beautiful courtesans in a humorous juxtaposition of beauty and ugliness. The two figures are often depicted wearing each other’s clothing, though not in the case of this painting.

Make sure to catch both rotations of this exhibition by visiting this spring and later in the fall– you won’t want to miss the beautiful works in either rotation. ~CM


Tsunemasa, The Four Sleepers, Japan, c. 1745, Ink, color and gold pigment on paper, Pacific Asia Museum Collection, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Gerald Kamansky, 1988.65.2

Ogawa Ritsuo, Daruma Carrying a Courtesan Across a Stream, Japan, c. 1740, Ink, color, gofun on paper, Pacific Asia Museum Collection, Gift of Dr. and Mrs. Calvin Frazier, 1986.67.2

Coming to a Close: Marking Transitions

March 14, 2013

Our exhibition Marking Transitions: Ceremonial Art in Indonesia closes March 24– less than two weeks from today! You won’t want to miss this exhibition of textiles, knives, a headdress and other ceremonial objects that are common to Indonesian rites and ceremonies. Here’s what we’ve previously written about this exhibition so you can learn more about these objects before visiting a final time.

Indonesian BronzesIndonesian Bronzes at Art and Coffee
These bronzes offer a look into Buddhist life and traditions in Indonesia. Before Islam was introduced to the archipelago in the 13th century, Buddhism was a major part of life in the region. Today, Buddhism remains one of the six official religions of the country, and several ancient Buddhist structures serve as reminders of its heritage.


 tampanIndonesian Ceremonial Textiles
Several beautiful and expertly woven textiles in the exhibition highlight this rich tradition in Indonesia. From the tampan heirloom cloth to the tapis ceremonial skirt, these textiles demonstrate the incredible dyeing and weaving practices that have been central to traditional rites for centuries.


This weekend, we have a great opportunity to see this exhibition before it closes– on Sunday, March 17, we’re hosting a Free Family Festival celebrating the arts and cultures of Indonesia. You can see a Balinese shadow puppet show complete with gamelan accompaniment, traditional dances, a batik demonstration, crafts, food and more. A full schedule of the day is available on our website. Best of all, the event is free and open to the public, including the galleries! ~CM



Grace Nicholson: How It All Began

March 8, 2013

Pacific Asia MuseumOne of the most unique things about Pacific Asia Museum is the historic Chinese-style mansion we’re housed in. But what many people don’t know is how this striking building came to be in the heart of Pasadena. In honor of International Women’s Day and Women’s History Month, today we’re sharing the story of Grace Nicholson, the fascinating entrepreneur whose Treasure House gives us a home today.

05. Grace NicholsonGrace Nicholson was born on December 31, 1877 in Philadelphia. With a modest inheritance, she moved to California in 1901 and set up a small curio shop on Raymond Avenue in Pasadena. Her interest in Southwestern Indian handiwork began with two of her early customers who had been involved in archaeological excavations in Arizona. Through them, she spent the few hundred dollars she had remaining on Indian basket collections. Over time she became increasingly interested in Native American art and culture and would frequently buy directly from the weavers on reservations.

Grace Nicholson became highly respected for her research on and knowledge of Native American culture and was elected to the American Anthropological Association in 1904. Her interest in art and culture grew, and she soon discovered Asian art. She began to incorporate Asian objects into her curio store, and by 1916 Grace had turned her full attention towards Asian art.

03. Grace Nicholson's Treasure House - Courtyard

Selling Asian artifacts proved to be a profitable business and by the early 1920’s Grace had outgrown the shop on Raymond Avenue. In 1924 Grace hired the architectural firm Marston, Van Pelt and Maybury to design a building in the Chinese-style on Los Robles Avenue. Her illustrations were incorporated into a design which carefully followed the Imperial Palace Courtyard style, used in the construction of major buildings in Beijing. Grace made sure every detail was correct and had the roof tiles, stone and marble carvings, and bronze and copper work imported directly from China or faithfully executed by Pasadena-area craftsmen, following plans and photographs of authentic Chinese examples.

02. Grace Nicholson's Treasure House - Gallery

Grace opened the first half of the building on March 11, 1925, and construction of the rectangular, open courtyard was completed in 1929. The first floor consisted of galleries in which she displayed and sold American Indian and Asian art objects, as well as the work of noted local, national and international living artists. The second floor housed more galleries, an auditorium for exhibition, education and lectures, as well as Grace’s private apartment. Today, museum staff offices are spread throughout her former living space, where fireplaces and other architectural elements serve as reminders of the building’s history.

Grace Nicholson gave the building to the City of Pasadena in 1943 for art and cultural purposes, with the stipulation that she would retain her private rooms until her death. Although Grace passed away in 1948, the building was occupied by the Pasadena Art Institute, which in 1954 changed its name to the Pasadena Art Museum and remained until 1970, when it moved to new location at Orange Grove and Colorado Boulevards and became the Norton Simon Museum. This part of our building’s history was recently explored in our exhibition 46 N. Los Robles: A History of the Pasadena Art Museum as part of Pacific Standard Time.

Pasadena’s Pacificulture Foundation moved into the building in 1971. In 1987 the Foundation bought the structure once known as “The Grace Nicholson Treasure House of Oriental Art,” and subsequently became Pacific Asia Museum.

The Grace Nicholson Building is itself one of the great treasures of the museum, being an important and extraordinary example of Chinese architecture in the United States. It has been designated a Cultural Heritage Landmark by the cities of Pasadena and Los Angeles. In 1976 the building was placed on the National Register of Historic Places, and in 1989 was declared a Historical Landmark by the State of California. But it also serves to remind us of a fascinating and strong female entrepreneur, who defied convention in the early 1900s and built not only a thriving business, but also a beautiful home that continues to bring Asian art and culture to Pasadena to this day. ~CM