by Roderick Conway Morris

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Kyoto National Museum
Detail of screen attributed to Unkoku Togan, late 16th/early 17th century

A Time of Flux in Japanese Art

By Roderick Conway Morris
MILAN 9 January 2010


Nature, tradition and innovation are the key themes of 'Japan: Power and Splendor 1568-1868,' an exhibition both enchanting and enlightening, replete with treasures from that country's great public museums, foundations and private collections.

The curator, Gian Carlo Calza, has managed to obtain the loan of an astonishing array of screens, paintings, scrolls, prints, textiles, ceramics, lacquer and other objects, which he uses to trace the story of Japan's evolution from a feudal, essentially rural society into an increasingly urbanized one with an influential middle class.

There are around 200 pieces - some of considerable proportions - in the exhibition, which is one of the most ambitious shows of Japanese art on loan entirely from Japan ever staged. Many of the exhibits will be substituted with similar examples at the end of January for conservation reasons.

The show spans the Momoyama and Edo (or Tokugawa) eras, which followed a hundred years of anarchic civil strife. In 1603 the Tokugawa shogun Ieyasu made Edo (modern Tokyo) his capital, and in 1615 finally defeated his last rival for power, the general Hideyoshi. (It is from Hideyoshi's castle, called Momoyama, that the earlier period takes its name.) Thereafter Ieyasu and his successors reigned over more than 250 years of almost unbroken peace, culminating with the restoration of the emperor as ruler in fact, not merely in name.

From the outside, tradition might seem the most abiding force in Japanese society and art of the early modern era. But, as Professor Calza demonstrates in the exhibition's half-dozen sections - 'Art and Nature,' 'Power and Splendor,' 'Forms of Design,' 'The City,' 'Tradition' and 'Encounters with the West' - Japan experienced steady change between the late 16th and mid-19th century.

The Japanese love of nature is illustrated in the first section of the show by poetic landscape screens. These also highlight the parallel cultivation of both originality and ancient tradition - a recurring theme in the exhibition. For example, while one screen depicts - against glittering backdrops of gold leaf - unmistakably Japanese scenes of ravens perched on snow-covered plum-tree branches on which the first small spring blossoms are flowering, another pair of screens in monochrome ink on paper shows sea- and mountain-scapes in the older Chinese style.

The former, expressions of the Momoyama sensibility at its most lyrical, have been attributed to Unkoku Togan (the founder of the Unkoku school), while the latter are by his son Unkoku Toeki. But, recent analysis of the techniques employed now suggests that Unkoku Toeki may well have been the author of both works.

Some scenes of the natural world in the next room, produced during the first half of the 17th-century when the Tokugawa shoguns were still watchful of any sign of dissent, are positively menacing with images of eagles from which other terrified animals take flight, and pine woods that have a minatory, muscular, contorted quality. Infinitely more peaceable and domestic in tone are subsequent delightful depictions of a family of gibbons, forming a simian chain from a branch to try to fish out a reflection of the moon shining on the surface of the water, by Kokan Myoyo, (1653-1717), and of apes exploring a mist-enshrouded outcrop of rocks, by Mori Sosen (1747-1821).

The simultaneous development of ancient imported styles and ones that grew out of an indigenous tradition is also evident in the 'Forms of Design' section, devoted to lacquer, woodwork, ceramics and the tea ceremony. For instance, the utensils employed in what was to become a quintessentially Japanese custom were initially imported from China and Korea. When the first local porcelain factory was opened in 1616, it was initially manned by Korean craftsmen. But in due course, ceramics echoing more native tastes - for example studiedly irregular raku vessels - also became an integral part of the complex tea-drinking ritual.

By 1700, the population of Edo, then one of the largest cities in the world, had reached around one million. A major factor in this explosion was the shoguns' policy of obliging the 260 or so daimyo, or feudal lords, to spend alternate years in the administrative capital and their own provincial fiefdoms - leaving their families behind as pampered and honored hostages. The industries that proliferated to serve this expanding population of residents and dependants promoted the rise of a bourgeois class of merchants, artisans and entertainers. Meanwhile, even the samurai classes, their military duties radically reduced by decades of peace, took up other professions and artistic and artisanal tasks to make a living.

The center of Edo's cultural ferment was the Yoshiwara pleasure district, with its tea houses, taverns, theaters, brothels and courtesans - who became the arbiters of fashion, parading the central thoroughfare with their entourages as though on a catwalk. The most high-ranking of these courtesans presided over salons attended by philosophers, poets, writers, artists, musicians and incognito aristocrats.

In another example of the transformation of an imported concept into something profoundly Japanese, a habitué of Yoshiwara, Asai Ryoi, in his 'Ukiyo Monogatari' (Tales of the Floating World) of 1660, metamorphosed ukiyo, the mystical Buddhist idea of impermanence, into the bohemian concept of forgetting reality, of existing for the moment, living the life of the pleasure district to the full, singing songs, drinking sake and 'like an empty gourd on the surface of the water going with the flow.'

Thus already in the 17th century, Yoshiwara with its bourgeois and aristocratic clients, its music, theater, bohemian artists and intellectuals, abundance of prostitutes and high-class 'grandes horizontales,' in many ways prefigured the nightlife of Paris, London and other European capitals in the 19th century.

Edo's pleasure district and its activities produced a new art form, 'ukiyo-e' (pictures of the floating world), the mass-market version being colored wood-block prints, for which many of Japan's finest artists supplied designs, extending the range of the subject matter over time. When these prints arrived in Europe in the late 19th century, they would have a marked influence on the direction of Western art.

'The City' section of the exhibition offers a superlative selection of screens, paintings and prints depicting the diverting, gorgeously colorful life of the pleasure district, including an amusing early 19th-century scroll painting narrating the journey by boat and on foot from Edo to Yoshiwara of three gods of good fortune, by Chobunsai Eishi, and captivating paintings of young beauties, one caught in autumn winds (by Isoda Koryusai) and another a snow storm (by Toensai Kanshi). Leading artists also contributed images for thousands of erotic prints (Shunga), represented here by an exceptionally refined sequence by Hokusai.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2024