Moon above the Clouds. The Life of Bishop Count Péter Vay and his Japanese Art Collection
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Moon above the Clouds. The Life of Bishop Count Péter Vay and his Japanese Art Collection

Commissioned by the pope to visit Roman Catholic missions throughout the world, Péter Vay first set foot on Japanese soil in mid-December 1902. On this occasion, he spent three months in Japan and made many acquaintances. On his second visit, he arrived in Japan from Canada on 1 April 1907. He stayed for over a month, first in Yokohama and then in Tōkyō. In a letter dated 15 April, he offered to put together a collection of Japanese watercolours, drawings and prints for the Museum of Fine Arts during his stay. He argued that fine examples of such works would provide an edifying introduction to the graphic art of East Asia from the thirteenth century onwards. His third and final trip to Asia took place in 1914, immediately before the outbreak of World War I. In autumn 1913, he set out from Trieste, reaching Japan for the third time on 25 March 1914 after briefly visiting India, Southeast Asia, Hong Kong, and Shanghai. On this occasion, the principal goal of his journey was to establish pastoral centres for the growing numbers of Asian Catholic migrant workers.

When assembling the Japanese collection, Vay’s primary objective was to collect Japanese prints that would offer as comprehensive an overview as possible, besides which he hoped to obtain bronze tsubas (sword hilt guards). “With the help of God, I have completed my work, […] we are sending home a collection of 3,000 items. Don’t be surprised: this is the first piece of good fortune in my life, and it is not even for myself”, he wrote of the work he had accomplished. According to the inventory compiled in 1909, the collection comprised 2,337 objects: 1,093 woodblock prints, 338 paintings, 719 small pieces of sculpture, 176 woodblock printed books, and 11 wooden statues.

The collection focused unequivocally on the fine arts, the most significant items being graphic works (woodblock prints, woodblock printed books) and (scroll) paintings. These were accompanied by a total of just 11 sculptures, which were nevertheless remarkable in terms of their quality. Worthy of particular mention among the applied art objects were the metal tsubas (sword hilt guards), sword embellishments and sets of writing implements; netsukes (counterweights to the small containers that were suspended on cords through a sash), mostly carved out of ivory and bone; as well as lacquerware items: inrōs (medicine boxes), combs, and other boxes.

The exhibition is focusing on the relevant parts of the almost unknown Vay Collection and reflects the main trends of collecting Japanese art in the early 20th century. Main goals of the exhibition are the presentation of the first Japanese fine art collection, display of the most outstanding objects, and the commemoration of the tireless activity of Count Péter Vay.