JAN FONTEIN (1927-2017)

Cecelia Levin's picture

The museum director, curator, and eminent Asian art historian Jan Fontein died in Newton Upper Falls, Massachusetts on May 19, 2017— just three days shy of his 90th birthday. He had been in ill health for some time, suffering from Parkinson’s disease.

While Fontein’s career spanned the globe, including the United States, the Netherlands, Asia, and the Indonesian archipelago, he was best known as the Director of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston and its longtime curator of Asiatic Art. Already renowned for its Asian art collection— considered the best holdings of this creative world region outside of Asia—Fontein’s arrival at the Museum in 1966 marked a broadening of the spectrum of Asia’s visual expressions and reflected the tastes of a new era of collecting. In the decade to follow he fostered new acquisitions ranging from South Indian Buddhist bronzes and Korean archeological finds of gold and bronze to courtly objects from the ancient kingdoms of mainland Southeast Asia and masterpieces from ancient Java. As curator, he also initiated a program of reciprocal exhibitions that brought the department’s Japanese art collections to audiences in their country of origin while organizing exhibitions from Japanese art collections for the Museum’s visitors as well as those at other major American museums. His first effort, in 1970, was an assemblage of Japan’s masterworks of Zen painting and calligraphy, followed by an overview of the Museum of Fine Arts’ Asiatic art presented at the Kyoto National Museum in 1972. An exhibition of the Museum’s collection of Japanese swords then followed in 1976. His early curatorial projects went well beyond the borders of Japan, as he also curated the exhibitions “Unearthing China’s Past” in 1974 and “Han and T'ang Murals” in 1976.

In 1975, Fontein was appointed as the Museum’s Acting Director, and the following year he was named to this position permanently. He presented a sharp contrast to those who preceded him in this position and gained respect as a “shirt-sleeve” museum director, for irrespective of his scholarly gravitas, he was intent on de-mystifying the subject of art for museum visitors. This was aptly demonstrated when he prominently installed the 1778 version of the painting “Watson and the Shark” by American artist John Singleton Copley in one of the museum’s galleries simultaneous to the 1975 release of the film “Jaws”. Fontein’s directorship paralleled the “blockbuster” trend among American museums, and among those organized by— or presented at— the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston were “Renoir”, “Pompeii A.D. ‘79”, “Treasures of Early Irish Art”, “5,000 Years of Korean Art”, “The Great Bronze Age of China”, “ The Search for Alexander”, “A New World: Masterpieces of American Painting, 1760-1910”, and “Pissaro”. As always, he was at the forefront, sporting a tie with the museum’s insignia while serving coffee to visitors who queued up in long lines.  He gained the admiration of all the carpenters, maintenance staff, and volunteers who worked on a particular exhibition, as he was able to greet each by name.

Fontein’s devotion to the arts of Asia, in tandem with his recognition of the great strength of the museum’s treasures, sparked his master vision for these collections as well as a broader expansion plan for the Museum. In 1977, under his leadership, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston embarked on a major building campaign. A direct contribution of $1.45 million by the Japanese government represented a pioneering effort of a foreign government to a cultural institution beyond its shores and was used for renovation of the Japanese art galleries. As construction began on the Museum’s new wing in 1979, with IM Pei as its architect, a prescient Fontein was concerned that the closure of galleries would be detrimental to the public’s accessibility to the art. This led to the opening of a “satellite museum” at Faneuil Hall that proved to be the most visited museum in the United States during its first year.  

Even after the Museum’s new West Wing opening in July 1981, Fontein continued to multitask as both museum director and curator of Asiatic Art. He oversaw the renovation of the department’s storage facilities as well as 26 galleries devoted to the Asian art collections, including the first gallery in the United States dedicated exclusively to the arts of Korea. The completion of these undertakings in November 1982 was commemorated by a special exhibition of works by Japanese Living National Treasures.

In total, under Fontein’s leadership, the expansion campaign raised $60 million dollars— an impressive amount for this era— and in the final years of his directorship it ushered in the renovations of the Evans Wing for American and European Painting and the remodeling of the headquarters of its renowned Museum School. In 1988 the Museum inaugurated Tenshin-en, its new “karesansui” (Japanese rock garden) named in honor of the great Japanese art scholar and former MFA curator, Okakura Kakuzō (also known as Okakura Tenshin, 1863-1913). As a great admirer of nature, especially the arboreal world, Fontein traveled to Japan to consult with monks and gardeners to find the appropriate landscaping that would hold up to the rigors of Boston’s challenging climate. The result was the creation of one of the ten best Japanese tea gardens in the Western world.

The years that Fontein led the Museum of Fine Arts also represented an era of the collections’ growth with over 10,000 objects acquired during his twelve-year tenure. After retiring as director in 1987, Fontein became the first to hold the position of the Matsutaro Shoriki Curator of Asiatic Art; the first curatorial chair in an American museum endowed by a Japanese corporation and made possible through Fontein’s earlier efforts during the Museum’s expansion fundraising campaign. He held this position until 1992.

Fontein’s post-Boston career was equally fruitful. In 1987, he moved to Indonesia for two years where he organized a traveling exhibition of ancient Indonesian sculpture for the National Gallery of Art, a main component of the nationwide “Festival of Indonesia, 1990-1991”. He also served as a vital adviser to this major 18-month cultural collaboration between the Republic of Indonesia and the United States. From 1990 through 1995, he held the appointment of the Bishop White Curator at the Royal Ontario Museum where he served as a consultant to its Asian art collections. Similarly, he affiliated with the Rietberg Museum in Zürich, where he authored a catalogue of their Southeast Asian art collection. During this later phase of his career, he forged a new relationship with his native Holland by joining the Nieuwe Kerk [New Church] Foundation in Amsterdam. There he organized a series of art exhibitions from China, Thailand, and Mongolia for this former church now transformed into an exhibition facility. He also became a member of the Advisory Board of the Hermitage Amsterdam, a branch museum of the State Museum Hermitage housed in a mid-17th century building on the River Amstel. During these years Fontein continued to be a prolific lecturer; highlighted among his presentations is the Third Annual Distinguished Lecture on South and Southeast Asian Art at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 2008. Uppermost, he could now indulge his peripatetic nature, travelling globally and leading tours for others to learn about the great monuments of Asia.

Jan Fontein was born on May 22, 1927 in Naarden, the Netherlands. His father was the Director of the Rekkense Inrichtingen, an innovative rehabilitation facility near the Dutch-German border. During the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands his family was active in the underground and as a protective measure, the young Fontein was sent work on a farm in Friesland. After serving in the Dutch navy, he commenced his studies of Chinese and Japanese language and history and Southeast Asian archaeology at Leiden University. A fortuitous vacancy at the Museum of Asiatic Art, Amsterdam, which later became part of the Rijksmuseum, led Fontein down an unexpected path into the fine arts when he filled an opening as an assistant curator. In 1954, he undertook a year of fieldwork in Japan where he cultivated an interest in “chanoyu”, the Japanese tea ceremony. Through Masuro Ijiri, whose father founded the first Borobudur research society and advocated for this monument’s preservation during the Japanese occupation of Java, Fontein was able to undertake study with the great tea master Shouchi Yabunouchi, the 12th grand tea master of the Yabunouchi School. He delayed his return to the Netherlands in order to receive a special certificate in this art form, and Fontein and Professor Ijiri remained lifelong friends. After returning to the Netherlands, he was promoted to full curator at the Museum in 1956. Fontein’s first foray into the American museum world was in 1962, when he was invited to catalogue the Avery Brundage Collection and consulted on the construction of a museum to house these masterworks. Although he was offered the directorship of this newly formed institution— now known as the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco—Fontein was determined only to leave the Netherlands for a position at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. His prophetic wish came true in 1966.

Fontein was preceded in death by his wife, the former Suzanne Heitz, in 1998. He leaves two sons, Arnout and Ruurd.  His second wife Yoko Fontein, a tea ceremony master given the name of Soyo, whom he married in 2002, also survives him.

Even more so than his connection to the arts of East Asia, Fontein is best remembered as one of the greatest authorities on the arts of ancient Java, particularly Borobudur, the largest Buddhist monument in the world constructed in the first quarter of the ninth century in Central Java. His fascination was sparked as a young student when he met with Dr. Theodoor van Erp, who oversaw the first restoration of monument from 1906 through 1911, and led to Fontein's lifelong dedication to this sacred shrine. Just prior to his departure for Boston, he completed his dissertation on a series of Borobudur’s narrative reliefs and was awarded his doctorate in 1966. His study, “The Pilgrimage of Sudhana: A Study of Gaṇḍavyūha Illustrations in China, Japan and Java” was published the following year. In addition to numerous monographs, two other books on Borobudur followed in the years ahead: “The Law of Cause and Effect in Ancient Java” in 1989 and “Entering the Dharmadhātu: A Study of the Gaṇḍavyūha Reliefs of Borobudur” in 2012. In 1971 Fontein organized the first major exhibition of ancient Indonesian art at the Asia Society Gallery (now the Asia Society Museum) in New York that launched the establishment of “The American Committee for Borobudur” in 1973, a major fundraising campaign that raised more than twice its original target to restore the monument under UNESCO’s aegis.

Over the years, Fontein shared his passion for Asian art, and was a great advocate for this subject, by serving on myriad advisory boards and committees on an international basis. Similarly, in the spirit of Sudhana’s visits to the kalyanamitras from Gaṇḍavyūha reliefs of Borobudur, he bestowed his knowledge upon his students as a visiting professor at the University of Heidelberg, Harvard University, and the Institute of Fine Arts at New York University. Among the many distinguished recognitions he received was the Commander in the Order of the Sacred Treasure of Japan, an honorary doctorate of Humane Letters from Boston University, and the Enzan Memorial Prize. In his homeland, he was appointed as an Officer in the Order of Orange Nassau by Her Majesty Queen Beatrix and was a Corresponding Member of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Science.

In addition to myriad exhibition catalogues, he was a prolific author, producing a broad array of scholarly works and also served as the editor for several publications. Yet, Fontein is best associated with the spoken word, recognized by all as a virtuoso storyteller, a vivacious raconteur, and a skillful polyglot.

In Jan Fontein one saw an impeccable scholar who easily tackled each and every aspect of traditional Asian art, ranging from Javanese sculpture, ceremonial Mongolian masks and Korean lacquer to South Asian bronze sculpture, ancient Chinese artifacts and Japanese Buddhist painting. Yet, beyond the dexterity of his erudition, he recognized the unity of Asia’s artistic expressions through their spirituality and ability to create a unique visual language. For this reason, he was often heard quoting the words of his illustrious predecessor, Okakura Kakuzō, “Asia is one”.