Over many centuries, Japanese artists have displayed a genius for conceiving and realizing ideal form. This ability, often produced by reducing an image or an object to an elegant essence, characterizes both two- and three-dimensional art. Japanese artists are able to combine this less-is-more approach with a level of technical virtuosity that is frequently astonishing.

The exhibition "The Art of Japanese Craft," which opened at the Philadelphia Museum of Art last weekend, proves the point many times over. In three small galleries next to the Japanese tea house on the second floor, curator Felice Fischer has installed 42 objects and object groups that embody a comprehensive range of media and techniques.

They represent only part of the full exhibition, which consists of 68 objects and groups. Because of the limited space, Fischer will change the installation to include the other 26 objects about midway through the show's run.

The evolution of Japanese craft art from 1875 to the present might seem like an arcane subject, but historically it's a revealing one. It was during this period that Japan, previously isolated by choice from Western culture, rocketed into the modern era in all phases of national life, including art.

This exhibition, however, looks and feels resolutely Japanese. Even when absorbing avant-garde styles, the Japanese never surrendered to them. Perhaps the most obvious synthesis of traditional values and European modernism is a sleek silver flower container in the form of a section of bamboo by a silversmith known by his studio name of Choshusai. This piece combines East and West in equal measure.

The objects that make up the exhibition reflect the taste of California collector Frederick R. McBrien III, who acquired them over the last 12 years. He already has given about 20 percent of them to the museum; the remainder are promised gifts. Because of this donation, the Art Museum now owns the most extensive collection of 20th-century Japanese craft in America.

A California native, McBrien first visited the Art Museum as a child during summer visits to a family farm in Reading. In the mid-'70s, while a student at the University of Pennsylvania, he worked at Marian Locks Gallery.

On one visit to the museum several years ago, he admired three pieces of metalwork from the mid-20th century. These were acquired in the early 1990s, when the museum began to fill a 20th-century gap in its Japanese holdings.

The encounter prompted him to invite Fischer to California to view his collection. From there, a relationship developed that resulted in a gift of 70 works, which fill the gap handsomely. (Two of these were withheld from the show.)

As Fischer writes in the exhibition catalog, Japanese craft went through several developmental phases beginning in the late 19th century. One of these involved giving equal weight to beauty and function.

In an exhibition that covers so many decades with such a broad variety of objects, the concept of aesthetically elevated utility is demonstrated many times over. This is the show's most persistent theme, regardless of medium, artist or utilitarian purpose.

One of the more impressive examples is a traditional furniture form called, in Japanese,

kazari-dana

- ornamental display shelves. It's a paragon of lacquer work, its jet-black surfaces mirror-bright and flawless. The decoration is even more striking, a frieze of blooming irises created from shell inlays, so meticulously fitted they appear painted.

Another noteworthy example is a set of 10 hibachi (braziers), made of lacquered wood with gold and silver designs on the outer containers and copper liners, by Tsuruta Wasaburo II, made between 1910 and 1920. These are believed to have been used only once; they're so exquisite one can't imagine using them at all except as decorative accents.

Many objects are more plausibly decorative than functional, or wholly so, such as two bronze carp by Takahashi Kaishu. One is black with inlaid silver scales, the other a deep ocher with contrasting dark scales made of a gold-copper alloy. Each fish form is fluidly reductive but intensely evocative of the living animal.

Many of the forms and decorative schemes are inspired by animals, birds and flowers. My favorite among several rabbit sculptures, because it so succinctly encapsulates the Japanese feeling for the defining detail, is a porcelain lidded box by Kusube Yaichi. It's all white except for streaks of underglaze blue inside the animal's ears.

Another exceptionally graceful form is a bronze brazier in the form of a pheasant, also by Takahashi Kaishu. The artist has pushed the form toward abstraction by emphasizing the bird's defining feature, its long, spiky tail, but he stops well short of reducing it to pure geometry, as Brancusi might have done. This sculpture is an homage to a ceramic version that is a Japanese National Treasure.

Rarely in a museum exhibition have I found so many sublimely beautiful objects gathered in one place, each deserving of prolonged examination. Many of the exhibits are vases in ceramic or bronze, often decorated with images such as a white phoenix on a porcelain vase by Kataoka Kozan or red ivy leaves in relief on a bronze vase by Kobayashi Shoun.

The decorated pieces represent one approach to activating a form, one so familiar to Western viewers that no one thinks twice about the concept. The Japanese also are adept at another, arguably more demanding strategy - letting the form, energized by an appropriate surface treatment, such as a ceramic glaze or a patina, speak for itself.

Choshusai's silver flower container, mentioned earlier, comes to life in this way. The approach is particularly common in ceramics - for instance with celadon or natural ash glazes, which result from firing in wood-fueled kilns. Such perfect marriage of form and surface - not only texture but color - embodies a quintessential Japanese attitude toward aesthetic restraint.

Because half of this exhibition will turn over, probably in the spring, it requires two visits. It's a long walk to the end of the wing - through the Indian temple and the Chinese scholar's study, turn right at the tea house - but you'll be glad you made the effort, and not once but twice.

Art: Divinely Crafted

"The Art of Japanese Craft: 1875 to the Present" continues in Galleries 241, 242 and 243 at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Parkway at 26th Street, through fall 2009. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays and to 8:45 p.m. Fridays. Admission is $14 general, $12 for visitors 65 and older, and $10 for students with ID and visitors 13 to 18. Pay what you wish Sundays. Information: 215-763-8100, 215-684-7500 or

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Contact contributing art critic Edward J. Sozanski at 215-854-5595 or esozanski@phillynews.com. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/edwardsozanski.