During her career, Mary Griggs Burke inspired, encouraged, and promoted countless individuals here and abroad—myself included—who are involved in the appreciation and study of the arts of Japan. She, along with the foundation she established, assembled one of the finest private collections of Japanese art, renowned for its broad scope and encompassing remarkable objects from Japan’s prehistoric era to the present day. Among its holdings are Buddhist and Shinto art, early narrative painting, ink monochrome painting, works by artists of various Edo-period schools, calligraphy, sculpture, ceramics, lacquer, metalwork, and printed material. Mary’s interests also extended to the art of China and Korea, some fine examples of which are in her collection.
Recalling her own childhood, Mary Burke described her fascination with a kimono her mother brought back from a trip to Japan in 1902: a black silk garment whose simple but dramatic decoration consisted of a pine tree covered with snow. There is a striking resonance between her recollection and an episode involving the great Rinpa-school artist Ogata Kōrin (1658–1716), who was asked by one of his patrons, the powerful government official Nakamura Kuranosuke (d. 1730), to design a kimono for his wife to wear to a fashion “contest.” The participants in this event were the wealthiest women in Kyoto, and they arrived dressed in the most sumptuous and brightly colored kimonos imaginable. Nakamura’s wife made her appearance in the garment designed by Kōrin: a raven-black kimono over an immaculate white robe, which stood out against the riot of colors displayed by other ladies. What was particularly noteworthy about Mary as a collector was her natural appreciation for Japanese aesthetics, and these anecdotes remind me of how she frequently joked that she must have been Japanese in a previous life. She was at ease with scholars, dealers, and other individuals active in the Japanese art world, and they accepted her into their unique circles.
My first collaboration with Mary Burke was in 1965, when she asked me to accompany her to Japan and introduce her to art dealers there. Among her first purchases during that short trip was Seiryū Gongen, a rare painting of a female Shinto deity; I was truly impressed by her choice. Rather than a pretty rendering of flowers or an ukiyo-e beauty, she chose a Kamakura-period Shinto painting, a selection indicative of the serious collector she would become. I might add that a Buddhist mandala she wished to purchase at the same time was denied an export permit by the Bunkachō, Japan’s Agency for Cultural Affairs, because it was considered a painting of such importance that it should not be taken out of the country. During this brief stay in Japan, dealers in both Tokyo and Kyoto gave her the nickname “Princess.” They were impressed by her genuine modesty, gracious enthusiasm, and intellectual curiosity, attributes they associated with the aristocracy.
Art historians and curators, especially in Japan, assisted Mary in finding objects that might be appropriate for her collection. Especially helpful to her tireless search for important or rare objects were many prominent scholars, among them the late professors Matsushita Takaaki, Akiyama Terukazu, Tanaka Ichimatsu, and Tayama Hōnan. Among the younger generation of scholars were Hashimoto Sumiko, Hayashiya Seizō, Kawai Masatomo, Nakano Masaki, Nishida Hiroko, Shimbo Tōru, and Tsuji Nobuo, whose expertise covered a wide range of genres and periods of Japanese art. All enabled her to expand and enrich her collection. She also enjoyed warm friendships with museum directors, including Hatakeyama Hisako of the Hatakeyama Museum, the late Miho Koyama of the Miho Museum, the late Sugahara Hisao of the Nezu Institute of Art, and the late Yoshioka Yōji of the MOA Museum of Art in Atami and the Hakone Museum of Art in Gōra. In the United States, museum directors—among them the late Gordon Washburn of the Asia Society; the late Harold P. Stern of the Freer Gallery of Art; and Evan Mauer, former director of the Minneapolis Institute of Arts—as well as scholars, including Cornelius Chang, Louise Cort, Wen Fong, Barbara Brennan Ford, Laura Kaufman, Thomas Lawton, Julia Meech, and William Rathbun, aided her in her quest for knowledge.
In the early years of Mary Burke’s career as a collector, her husband, Jackson, a noted designer of typefaces, supported her with his keen sensibility, his astute eye, and the intelligent insight of an experienced artist. She treasured and depended on Jackson’s help, and was devastated when he passed away in 1975, weeks before the opening of the first exhibition of the Burke Collection at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. A few of us who worked closely with Mary were concerned that she might lose enthusiasm for collecting after this sad event; fortunately, she eventually regained her strength and continued with renewed passion and energy.
Mary impressed a number of art dealers, some of whom expressed a special interest in helping her. The assistance and encouragement of the late Hosomi Minoru, Mayuyama Junkichi, Muraguchi Shirō, Setsu Iwao, Takahashi Tarō, Yabumoto Sōshirō, and the staff of Kochūkyo in Tokyo will always be remembered. Among the next generation of dealers and scholars, Tajima Mitsuru of London Gallery, Tokyo, and, in New York, Frederick Baekeland, Leighton Longhi, Kōichi Yanagi, Sebastian Izzard, and Keum Ja Kang were unstintingly helpful in expanding Mary’s knowledge of and appreciation for various aspects of Japanese and Korean art.
Mary’s acquisitions increased exponentially, so much so that in 1975 the Metropolitan Museum hosted an exhibition of her collection. In 1985 the Tokyo National Museum also presented an exhibition of the collection—it was, at the time, the museum’s only exhibit of a private collection of Japanese art from abroad. Mary continued to make her collected works available to the public through various exhibitions, which culminated in 2000 with a second exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum.
Needless to say, working with Mary also expanded my friendships with collectors, scholars, and dealers, and enriched my career in the field of Japanese art history. The most rewarding experience for me was to watch her respond to objects with genuine appreciation; an example was her instant attraction to the Iga-ware water jar that is one of the gems of her collection. While I understood its unique quality from reading about and studying such pieces, she responded to this object with spontaneous intuition. No explanation was necessary for her to appreciate the peculiar beauty of the vessel, which epitomizes the aesthetics of the tea ceremony.
Not only did Mary make her treasures accessible to students, she was also a devoted patron of my graduate teaching program at Columbia University, New York. As a result, many students received financial support for their study and the opportunity to travel to Japan for research. Once a year, she held a “seminar” at her home in Oyster Bay, Long Island, where my students, and sometimes visiting scholars from Japan, assembled for a weekend of examining works of art in beautiful surroundings. These gatherings remain a cherished memory.
Looking back on the career of Mary Burke, it is truly fitting for her to have been known to the Japanese as “the Mother of Japanese Art in America,” and to have been awarded the Order of the Sacred Treasure, Gold and Silver Star, by the Japanese government in 1987. Indeed, she traveled a splendid, treasure-filled road, evolving, over time, from a “Princess” to a “Mother.” It has been a rare honor and a most rewarding experience to have collaborated with Mary Burke for more than forty years. I am, as so many are, indebted to her for her tireless devotion to the arts of Japan, and for her outstanding and far-reaching legacy.
Miyeko Murase is Professor Emerita, Columbia University and Former Special Consultant, Department of Asian Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art