Japan in Kraków

Polish collector Feliks Jasieński was a great collector of Japanese art, but when he donated his collection to the Kraków Museum, it could be seen only in temporary exhibitions. It was at one such exhibition during World War II that Polish film director Andrzej Wajda—then a 19-year-old art student—saw the Jasieński collection for the first time. Wajda recalls that in the midst of the wartime chaos, the Japanese prints and drawings oozed harmony, clarity, and hope for him. Years later, he became the collection's protector.

When Wajda was awarded the prestigious Kyoto Prize for Achievement in the Arts in 1987, he decided to donate the prize money for the creation of "a beautiful Japanese building" in Kraków, which would house the Jasieński collection. Many others, including the Workers' Union of East Japan Railways, contributed to the project. When the construction committee ran out of funds to complete the project in 1992, money was collected in railway stations all over Tokyo, some 138,000 Japanese responding to Wajda's plea for donations.

The leaf- (or wave-) shape museum overlooks the Wawel Castle from the banks of the Vistula River and was designed by Japanese architect Arata Isozaki. Recently, a Japanese language school was added to the museum complex, another gift of Japanese railway workers. In front of the museum entrance is a sculpture by Aiko Miyawaki that looks like a lightly penciled drawing of the air and water.

Some of the treasures of the collection include ancient samurai swords and the helmets the samurai wore to inspire terror in the enemy—one of the outfits looks very much like a Japanese Darth Vader. In the dimly lighted gallery, the frowns on these helmets can still send a shudder down your spine. Other items on display include beautifully woven silk kimonos and screens and solid yet sophisticated bronze vessels. Light lacquer and elaborate enamel brush against ivory in tiny netsuke, which were once worn on the sashes of kimonos in Japan; the objects take forms of hilarious—but also sometimes spiteful—faces and grotesque creatures.

Looking at the color-saturated, clear impressions of woodblock prints from famous series by Hokusai, Toyokuni, Hiroshige, Utamaro, and other artists, one can hardly believe that they were once considered common enough to wrap fish. Now, these wonderful and refined works are considered high art.

Japan has always remained rooted in the Polish imagination. Japanese art—the fleeting world of famous beauties, endless yet ever-changing views of Mount Fuji, and the painted grimaces of kabuki actors—freeze and defy laws of time, as Krakovian Nobel Laureate Wisława Szymborska wrote in her beautiful poem about Utagawa Hiroshige's People on the Bridge. Another Polish Nobel Laureate, Czesław Miłosz, confessed in one of his poems that he came to consider himself "…one of the many merchants and artisans of Old Japan / Who arranged verses about cherry blossoms, / Chrysanthemums and the full moon."

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