Museum liberates works from thecellar

“Permanent collection” means art a museum owns, and — all too often — keeps in storage while traveling, high-profile exhibits take up the premium space.

Art thus “hidden” sometimes can blossom into a really big show; for example, a decade ago, Asian Art Museum’s Yoko Woodson literally pulled old Japanese drawings from storage boxes at the Honolulu Academy of Arts’ James Michener collection to create a major two-part exhibit here of seminal works by Hokusai and Hiroshige.

But on the whole, storage-to-upstairs is not common, except in giant permanent-collection museums such as Victoria and Albert in London (4.5 million objects over 12.5 acres), and Washington’s Smithsonian, with 142 million items in 19 museums worldwide.

In recent years, San Francisco really lucked out on this score: both the rebuilt de Young and the Civic Center incarnation of the Asian Art Museum have much more space than their previous locations (where they were joined at the hip), so many hitherto seldom-seen pieces are now in the limelight.

The new de Young is exhibiting its major holdings in Rodin sculpture; paintings by Rembrandt, Rubens, Watteau, de la Tour, Vigée Le Brun, Cézanne, Monet and Picasso, among other Dutch, Italian, German, English and French masters; a 15th-century Spanish ceiling, European decorative arts, tapestries, and more than 70,000 prints and drawings.

“In a New Light: the Asian Art Museum Collection,” on two floors, has 2,500 previously mostly stored works from the museum’s collection, including South Asian stone sculptures, Chinese jades, Korean paintings, Tibetan thangkas, Cambodian Buddhas, Islamic manuscripts and Japanese ceramics.

In addition, from time to time, works from the permanent collection (“downstairs”) are featured in a special show, and here’s news of that: “Telling Tales: Illustrated Storytelling Scrolls” (through Oct. 21) is a small collection fromthe museum’s permanent collection put together on the occasion of the special exhibits “Yoshitoshi’s Strange Tales” (through Sept. 2) and “Tezuka: The Marvel of Manga” (through Sept. 9). They all have to do with telling stories in pictures: Yoshitoshi used pictures singly or in small groups, while Tezuka used them sequentially, in cartoon strips, graphic novels and animated films.

“Telling Tales” is another format, the illustrated scroll, from Japan, China, India, Thailand and Indonesia. The Japanese scroll recounts in alternating text and painted scenes a number of mythical episodes, ranging over several centuries, relating to an important Shinto god. The Chinese scroll has only one large painted scene showing the story’s primary locale. There is no action, and no accompanying text — it’s simply a pretext for the creation of a landscape painting. The Indian scroll is used differently: as visual aids for public performances by professional storytellers.

The Thai and Indonesian painted scrolls would have been hung in temples during ceremonies. The legend depicted in the Indonesian work would have been familiar to viewers. The same may be true of the enormous Thai painting in this gallery. The entire story of its main character, the Buddha in a previous life, would have been recited chapter by chapter while the scroll hung on the temple wall.

In a New Light; Telling Tales: Illustrated Storytelling Scrolls

Where: Asian Art Museum, 200 Larkin St., San Francisco

When: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily except until 9 p.m. Thursday and closed Monday

Tickets: $5 to $12

Contact: (415) 581-3500 or

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