The Philadelphia Museum of Art's spectacular exhibition of Japanese kimono and a companion show of photographs by Ansel Adams from the museum's collection confirm an observation made when the Ruth and Raymond G. Perelman building opened last fall: The Perelman addition not only increases overall exhibition space, but it has created opportunities for specialized shows that the museum might otherwise not have considered or been able to adequately accommodate.
The kimono exhibition, which reveals the influence of Western art on traditional designs during the last century, makes the point forcefully. This focused examination of a particular aspect of Japanese fashion might not have found its way into the special exhibition gallery in the museum proper, where the struggle for slots on the schedule is highly competitive.
Now that the department of costume and textiles has its own dedicated gallery, the museum can more readily offer visitors the kind of culturally enriching experience represented by "Fashioning Kimono," organized and circulated by Art Services International of Alexandria, Va.
The same holds true for photography. The museum has staged a number of photo shows during the last 25 years. However, it was only seven years ago that it was able to create a space, the Julien Levy gallery, dedicated to continuous displays of photographs from the collection.
Originally, the Levy gallery was a corridor in the museum's ground-floor administrative wing, which wasn't ideal for its purpose. Last fall, it was moved to a more conventional and visible space in Perelman.
The Adams show demonstrates the degree to which the photography viewing experience has improved in quality if not in quantity. Being quieter and more compact, Levy II is more agreeable for the kind of nuanced, contemplative images that hang there now.
Remarkably, every one of the more than 80 garments in "Fashioning Kimono" comes from a single private collection, in Lugano, Switzerland. They belong to Jeffrey Montgomery, an American-born collector of Japanese art who has lived mostly in Europe.
The exhibition, guest-curated by independent scholar Annie Van Assche, a specialist in Japanese art, illustrates how contact with the West after the 1868 Meiji Restoration influenced Japan's textile designs, in the way that exposure to 19th-century European fine art nudged Japanese painting toward modernism.
The installation in the Perelman's Spain gallery makes this transformation abundantly clear, both through a large selection of traditional and modern women's kimono and smaller displays of garments worn by men and children.
The time line begins on the left wall, with a selection of sumptuous traditional designs in silk, worn mostly by upper-class women, and proceeds clockwise through the Art Nouveau and Art Deco periods into the mid-20th century, when the most radical designs suggest abstract expressionism.
The basic kimono form, which dates to the 8th century, doesn't change much as one moves around the room. As displayed, the female kimono is a floor-length, T-shaped garment made from a single piece of fabric 12 to 14 yards long. Most of the examples on view are of silk, sometimes blended with rayon, but cotton and more fibrous plant materials such as hemp and kozo also are used.
Within the basic form, kimono designs vary according to the wearer's marital status (different sleeve lengths for single and married women), formal and semiformal situations, and seasonal climate changes. Kimono taxonomy is fascinating and multilayered, and the exhibition catalog is an excellent guide to understanding it.
Yet, the primary appeal of this show is less social than visual - bold patterns and colors characterize the kimono from one end of the time line to the other. Some patterns are woven, others printed; many designs involve leaf and floral motifs, while others, beginning with the Art Deco period, are more geometric. One striking pattern in vivid red and turquoise is derived from a Japanese puzzle; others suggest spirals, galactic swirls and stylized shamrocks.
The women's kimono is the most graphically bold and vividly colored; men's kimono and jackets tend to be more subdued and pictorial. And among the children's garments one finds propangandistic militarism - designs that feature bombers and warships. But these are digressions from the principal design impulse, to adapt kimono to 20th-century taste and shifting social conventions.
The Ansel Adams exhibition next door offers revelation of a different order, about both the photographer, who died in 1984, and his audience. We tend to think of Adams' vision in terms of dramatic Western panoramas photographed in wilderness locations such as Yosemite Valley. However, in this selection of about 40 black-and-white prints Adams confronts nature at arm's length, or sometimes even less than that.
The pictures reveal the natural world in microcosm, sometimes partially abstracted. His subjects are elemental but of a kind easily overlooked in a vast landscape - tree bark, stones, shadows, ripples, sand.
Space is compressed and the horizon often eliminated, which creates ambiguities of scale. Images are concentrated and usually reductive, which emphasizes details such as patterns, the graining of wood and striations of rock, and the distorting effect of deep shadow.
As in the classic Adams panoramas, the images are enhanced by his impeccable craftsmanship - sensitive framing and meticulous, high-contrast printing. Other photographers have practiced this gimlet-eyed style of nature photography, but none has achieved results superior to his.
The museum is able to mount such an exhibition entirely from its own holdings because, thanks to two benefactors, it is rich in Adams. In the mid-1970s, the late Robert and Lorna Hauslohner financed the purchase of 100 Adams prints. These account for more than half of the 185 Adams photos the museum owns.
An archive of this depth and quality deserves periodic exposure. "Transcending the Literal" (an Adams phrase) is precisely the kind of permanent-collection show that all museums should stage as often as they can.
Art: Kimono Splendor
"Fashioning Kimono" continues in the Perelman building of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Fairmount and Pennsylvania Avenues, through July 20. Ansel Adams continues through Aug. 17. Perelman hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Tuesdays through Sundays. Perelman admission is $7 general, $6 for visitors 62 and older, and $5 for students with ID and visitors 13 to 18. (These fees double for admission to the main museum.) Pay what you wish Sundays. Information: 215-763-8100, 215-684-7500 or
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