Robert Singer, LACMA's curator of Japanese Art, was showing a woman, a member of the Tatsuuma family who own the Tatsuuma Museum in Kobe, around the museum a few months ago. She asked if he'd heard of those famous crane screens. She meant the 22-foot wide ones by 18th century artist Maruyama Okyo — “the most revolutionary, the most celebrated painter in the history of Japan in the last 400 years,” in Singer's words — that show seventeen cranes from two species carefully arranged against a gold leaf background. Yes, Singer told her. He had heard of them, and would she like to see them?

This confused her. They couldn't possibly be here, she thought, since they must be Japanese National Treasures. Actually, Singer informed her, they were here, in the vault of LACMA's Pavilion of Japanese Art. “After we called CPR — they have that effect,” Singer jokes, he took her down to have a look.

Cranes by Maruyama Okyo officially goes on view at LACMA this weekend, and they're the only pair of the artist's five most famous screens not to be Registered National Treasures. This means they're the only ones that could legally leave Japan, though even that “many people said would be impossible,” Singer pointed out at a Wednesday press preview.

The screens, made in 1772, have been preserved surprisingly well. If you glimpse them out of the corner of your eye, you might think they are new, painted in this decade rather two and a half centuries ago. Unlike many scenes from that period, they have a minimal feel — the horizon line is implied, not shown, and the background is a solid color, with no rocks, trees or ponds to suggest “nature.” “I don't personally like the idea of talking about things in modern terms,” Singer says, “[like] 'they're so modern.' But these are modern.”

Copyright 2012 LACMA; Credit: A view of the right half of Maruyama Okyo's Cranes (1772)

Copyright 2012 LACMA; Credit: A view of the right half of Maruyama Okyo's Cranes (1772)

There are six panels in each screen, with cranes staggered across. Fold any of the panels in, and the composition should still look complete. The red heads of the red-crowned cranes are vivid, and so are the reds and greens in all the crane's eyes, and the single black hairs growing on some of their faces are crisp and bristly. There's hardly any cracking. The condition of these screens, in addition to their historical significance — Okyo was among the first to paint directly from nature, and started his own school — and the fact that they'd been secreted away for decades, made Singer's quest to bring them to L.A. seem like a long-shot.

“They feel sorry for me,” Singer says, of officials at the Japanese Ministry of Culture, who granted him an export license in 2011, after he campaigned for two years to get one. He's known people at the Ministry for decades, since he went to school with some of them at Kyoto University where he was a postgraduate from 1973 until 1988, the same year he started at LACMA (that's why they feel sorry, he jokes, because he's so old and it took him so long to graduate). He travels to Japan monthly now, and has gotten quite good at bringing art home with him. Acquiring the Cranes screens was a particularly drawn out process, however.

Singer saw the screens on display at the Kyoto University Museum of Art in 1996, the first time in history they had been shown to the public. He spent the next thirteen years trying to find out who owned them. “No one would tell me,” he says, though some of the people he asked certainly knew.

Then, in 2009, a former Kyoto University professor of Singer's contacted him. “I own them,” his professor told him.

This professor belonged to the Harihan family in Kobe, which had acquired the screens in 1926, buying them from the Yamada family that had owned them since 1773. The story goes, the owner of Harihan collection at that time wanted the screens so desperately he mortgaged everything he owned to buy them (then later paid back all the debts). Twice, emperors had come to the Harihan Estate just to see the screens, but otherwise the family's ownership had been kept on the down-low.

By 2009, the professor, in his mid-80s, had started worrying about the future of his screens — would they be taken care of properly after his death? “If you get an export license, I'll loan you the screens,” he told Singer.

This is how Singer works: he finds the art he cares about in Japan and then secures an export license, a process different in Japan than in countries like, say, Greece, where no antiquities dating up to 1830 can leave the country. Japan determines whether to grant a license on a case-by-case basis. So if Singer, relying on the leniency of those former classmates at the Ministry of Culture who “feel sorry” for him and his nose for finding the right people, can convince the powers that be to trust him with historical works of art, he can have them.

Then he asks for a loan from the artwork's owner, brings it back to L.A. and tries to find someone to fund LACMA's acquisition of it. If he can't find a funder, he'll have to send it back. But, he says, “That's not my middle name,” meaning he doesn't send art back.

In October 2011, soon after he brought Okyo's Cranes to Los Angeles, he showed them to Camilla Chandler Frost, of the same Chandler family that owned the L.A. Times and erected the Hollywood sign, to come see them. A birder, Frost had actually traveled to Japan in search of the now-dwindling population of red-crowned cranes the screens depict years earlier. She agreed to fund the purchase but only if the credit line reads “Gift of Camilla Chandler Frost in honor of Robert T. Singer,” so that “our names will be linked together forever.”

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