The Art of Impermanence
Art curator Adriana Proser reveals insights into the Japanese philosophy of appreciating the beauty of the moment
Adriana Proser fell in love with Asian art during a seven-month program at the National Tunghai University in Taiwan where she took a mini-course on Chinese calligraphy. “This writing was so completely different from what I had learned in the past—I just found it fascinating,” she says.
As Proser learned more about calligraphy, she realized that although this art form had only limited materials—white paper or silk, a brush, and black ink—it nonetheless provided the artist with opportunities for endless creativity and expression.
This experience led her on a path devoted to the study of Asian art in the United States, organizing and co-organizing more than 40 exhibitions, including The Art of Impermanence: Japanese Works from the John C. Weber Collection and Mr. and Mrs. John D. Rockefeller 3rd Collection (accompanied by the book by the same name) and Pilgrimage and Buddhist Art.
She also published a number of books, including Comparative Hell (2023) and Buddha and Shiva, Lotus and Dragon: Masterworks from the Mr. and Mrs. John D. Rockefeller 3rd Collection at Asia Society (2020).
Proser organized The Art of Impermanence exhibition for the Asia Society Museum, where she was a curator for 17 years. The exhibition was dedicated to the concept of impermanence as it appears in various forms of Japanese art, ranging from a sacred reliquary to paintings and objects of daily use.
The exhibition, which opened in February 2020, was unexpectedly cut short by the COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns in New York. Disappointed by the early closure, Proser nonetheless noticed thought-provoking parallels between the themes she had laid out in the exhibition and the sense of mortality that the pandemic brought to people.
“We were seeing people get sick and die in a way that we were not used to in contemporary culture,” Proser says. Growing older and dealing with the deaths of family members and friends also prompted her to reflect even more deeply on this concept of impermanence. “You’re here for the moment, so you really need to be mindful and think about what’s happening now and what’s beautiful around you,” she says.
For this special Magnifissance feature, we invited Proser, currently the Mr. and Mrs. John Quincy Scott Curator of Asian Art at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, to share her thoughts and insights on the themes and objects from The Art of Impermanence exhibition.
“The concept of impermanence, this concept of anicca, or what they call mujō in Japanese, the transience of life as seen in Japanese art, is tied to the Buddhist tradition that was imported to Japan largely via China,” Proser says.
Buddhists believe that life is impermanent and that people should aspire to escape the cycle of life and death by elevating their spiritual realm, eventually achieving liberation through enlightenment. According to Proser, this concept of the impermanence of life has permeated Japanese culture over the centuries, reflected not only in Buddhist art but also in other forms of art and culture, such as poetry and literature.
One of Proser’s favourite pieces from The Art of Impermanence exhibition is a stunning rock-crystal reliquary from the Kamakura period (fourteenth century), depicted in the form of a Five-Element Pagoda (gorintō). Each part of the object represents one of the Five Elements: the square base represents earth, the sphere water, the pyramid fire, the hemisphere wind, and the finial at the top represents space.
“Because reliquaries hold the remnants of the Buddha and his notable followers, they really reflect that impermanence,” Proser says.
The Zen Buddhist philosophy of chanoyu, the Way of Tea, has been an integral part of Japanese culture for centuries, guiding participants to quiet their minds and bask in the beauty of the moment. This is achieved not only through the art of drinking tea but also through appreciating the tea utensils and the conversation between people during the gathering, Proser says.
The tea wares pictured here, another highlight from The Art of Impermanence exhibition, are known as Oribe ware, a term referring to Mino ware with a copper-green glaze. “What I love about this pattern is that you can see a dripping, almost accidental sense of glaze but also much more carefully depicted images of persimmon hanging from strings,” Proser says.
In Japan, people often hang the fruits from their roofs to dry. This is not only a prevalent image of daily life, but it also holds deeper symbolism.
“Persimmons can be quite acrid or bitter, but as they dry they become sweeter and sweeter,” Proser says. “In this transformation, you see the similarity with the [Buddhist] symbolism of the lotus flower, which is emerging from a dirty state and growing into something beautiful. It’s an analogy for enlightenment. The persimmon is transforming from its bitter state—the life of suffering—into something sweet: enlightenment.”
The evolving beauty of wabi sabi
Another featured object from The Art of Impermanence exhibition is a beautiful vase, a type of Japanese lacquerware known as Negoro, named after Negoro-ji, a Buddhist temple from the mountains south of Osaka.
“Part of the appreciation for this type of work is that there’s this layer of red lacquer on top of a layer of black lacquer. Over time, as the object gets worn and becomes somewhat scratched and banged up, the black lacquer from below starts to emerge,” Proser says.
This ties in with the Japanese concept of wabi sabi, the aesthetic of appreciating imperfect beauty in nature and life. When looking at the vase through the lens of this aesthetic, we not only see the rustic qualities that are “very much associated in Japan with the tea ceremony, but the vase also evokes the ideas of impermanence, namely that perfection is fleeting. We’ve got this object of pristine beauty, but over time that beauty is disintegrating,” she says.
The concept of impermanence is not limited to Japan but also holds a place in European thought, from the philosophy of the ancient Greeks to the 16th and 17th-century memento mori, or meditations on death. Nonetheless, it does differ from the Japanese concept of impermanence, which not only focuses on the element of mortality but also on appreciating the beauty of the moment, Proser says.
According to Proser, the most popular Japanese symbol of transience is the cherry blossom. “People respond to these blossoms that are gorgeous when they appear in spring but that also die very rapidly,” she says.
“People traditionally go to enjoy the cherry blossoms during the Cherry Blossom Festival. They drink, get together with their friends and eat under the cherry blossoms, go for viewings and write about them. That’s an image that you see showing up in Japanese culture early on, and that continues to be really powerful into the present time,” Proser says.
This speaks to the “concept of transience, this idea of fleeting beauty—what the Japanese called mono no aware. There’s this intensity of beauty that you can partake in, but with the knowledge that it’s fleeting,” she says.
The hanging scroll pictured here, another highlight from The Art of Impermanence exhibition, is an Edo-period piece by Japanese artist Kubo Shunman dating to around the 1780s.
“This is really a wonderful painting, and it shows the branches of cherry trees above these courtesans. The cherry tree blossoms are starting to fall from the trees, so already these beautiful things are starting to fall apart and disappear,” Proser says.
The painting depicts courtesans of different ages and ranks. “Directly underneath those fallen blossoms is the courtesan with the highest status but also the eldest in age. … The petals floating down around her show us that she’s in a period of time when her beauty is starting to fade.”
The painting, as with The Art of Impermanence exhibition is both an ode to the beauty of nature and humanity but also to the transience of life, encouraging us to be mindful of the preciousness of each moment, a moment that will be gone in the blink of an eye.