Several Hundred Years of Solitude

Several Hundred Years of Solitude

Several Hundred Years of Solitude

The big picture.
Dec. 2 1998 3:30 AM

Several Hundred Years of Solitude

Japanese art before Commodore Perry.

"Edo: Art in Japan 1615-1868"
National Gallery of Art, Washington
Nov. 15, 1998-Feb. 15, 1999

Roughly two-thirds of the way through the enthralling Edo show at the National Gallery of Art, there's a glass case containing two outsize dishes, each a couple of feet in diameter. White and cobalt blue, these porcelain dishes have as their decoration fanciful maps of the world, with the islands of Japan in the center. Like Saul Steinberg's famous map of the United States from the New Yorker's point of view, these maps relegate the rest of the world to the truncated periphery, with such speculative identifications as the "Land of Dwarves" and the "Land of Women." Of course, by the 1830s, when these dishes were made, the Japanese knew better but, like Steinberg's, the maps capture the cultural confidence of the playfully arrogant islander. The humiliating visit of the black ships of Commodore Matthew Perry, demanding trade rights and treaty concessions for the United States, was still two decades away, and the Japanese could retain for a little longer the illusion that their two centuries of peace and feudal harmony would last forever. By 1868, when Edo was renamed Tokyo, the dream was shattered, and Japan began the hard work of entering the modern world.

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"Edo: Art in Japan 1615-1868," expertly organized by Robert T. Singer of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, shows off roughly 300 objects from this peaceful interlude. Almost all are from Japanese collections, and many are designated as "National Treasures." The Edo period extended from the end of the civil wars of the 16th century (the source of all samurai films) and the consolidation of power under the warlord Tokugawa Ieyasu, to the Meiji Restoration, when Japan adopted something resembling a parliamentary monarchy under the emperor. The successive Tokugawa leaders established their power base around their castle in Edo and developed a clever system of keeping the feudal lords (the daimyo) under their tributary thumb. The daimyo were required to spend alternate years in Edo, while their families lived there all the time, as hostages of sorts. This arrangement called for constant traveling, and these travels to and from Edo were carried out with a good deal of pomp and circumstance. Many of the objects on display in the National Gallery derive from these ceremonial processions. There are cases filled with elaborate and witty helmets from the early 17th century, shaped like the knobby turbo seashell or with rabbit ears appended; swords designed more to impress than to kill; saddles decorated with such whimsical and hardly threatening motifs as powder puffs and cosmetic brushes.

The layout of the show is neither by chronology nor by medium, and the big thematic divisions--"Style," "Samurai," "Travel and Landscape," and the like--give the impression that time stood still. Politically, and to some extent artistically, the impression is accurate. (A survey of American art from the landing of the Pilgrim Fathers to the end of the Civil War--the chronological extent of the Japan show--would look ridiculous laid out on a similar model.) From the stunning rooms of the Style section, you ascend one of I.M. Pei's sky-lit spiral staircases (transformed into a bamboo and pebble grove) to the more austere world of Samurai, "Work," and "Religion and Festivals." All seems orderly and timeless, just as the Tokugawa--with their xenophobia and rigid social class boundaries--wanted it. Toward the end of the show, though, especially in the section devoted to entertainment, a sense of historical change enters in. In the pleasure quarter of Edo, the feudal divisions between commoners and nobility broke down, and this "floating world" gave birth to new and vigorous forms of popular entertainment. Sumo wrestlers and Kabuki actors were the celebrities, and artists advertised their prowess in cheap color woodblock prints (see Katsukawa Shun'ei's The Sumo Wrestlers Kajihama and Jinmaku, circa 1790, and Toshusai Sharaku's The Kabuki Actor Otani Oniji III as the Servant Edohei, 1794).

From the start of the show, two opposing tendencies are immediately evident. One is the retreat from materialism and the modern city into a monochromatic refuge of meditative calm. This tendency is associated with Zen and looks back to the tradition of the scholar-aesthete hermit imported centuries earlier from China. Everything is pared down, black-and-white, elemental. Some of the finest of all Zen paintings are on view in Washington, including the bare-bones Circle, Triangle, Square, by Sengai Gibon, perhaps the single most famous Zen image. At the other extreme is the eager embrace of urban chaos, masquerade, and color. The woodblock prints of the late 18th century adopt technicolored effects drawn from many different traditions, including Western perspective--which struck Japanese artists as a tricky and artificial set of rules. Both these contrasting traditions, Zen austerity and floating-world carnival, brought about a greater individualism in Japanese art. Zen masters were known for their eccentric and unpredictable behavior, and a kindred idiosyncrasy was valued in the Edo demimonde.

In all the sections of the show, even the least conducive to frivolity, there is an element of playfulness and oddball aesthetic daring. In the Religion and Festivals section, for example, one finds among pictures of Buddhas and Shinto deities (see Ogata Korin, Gods of Wind and Thunder) a large ink-brushed hanging scroll depicting nothing but vegetables (Ito Jakuchu, Vegetable parinirvana, circa 1780). In the center is a long white radish with forked roots, surrounded by melons and gourds and turnips and squash. This painting, as any 18th century viewer would recognize, is a parody of scenes of the dying Buddha surrounded by his followers. And yet, this painting of mourning vegetables has a peculiar gravity about it. Jakuchu, a vegetarian who managed his family's vegetable business, seems to have taken vegetables pretty seriously. More obvious in its intent to amuse is a striking 19th century Kabuki costume with a shoot-me-here target on the back and an arrow through the bull's-eye. Here again, though, there is an appealing restraint in the elegant design and muted greens of the costume. The most satisfying objects in the Edo show are those that find ways to reconcile the two opposing tendencies--Zenlike austerity and floating-world flamboyance--of the period.

There is another reason, though, for the extraordinary pleasures this exhibition provides, and that is the uncanny familiarity of Japanese art for Western viewers. Exotic and remote as this island world was, it had a special appeal for late 19th century Europeans and Americans. Impressionism, the most popular of all Western art movements, is inconceivable without the provocation of Japanese art. The Edo show includes the woodblock print depicting an angular courtesan (by Keisai Eisen) that Vincent van Gogh used as the basis for his own painting (The Courtesan, 1887), now on view in the van Gogh show elsewhere in the National Gallery. Because of the tremendous vogue of such images, collected and reworked by Edgar Degas and Claude Monet and Mary Cassatt and then adopted in our own popular culture, we recognize immediately the polymorphous personae of the floating world--the sumo wrestlers, the geisha and her admirers (see Kitagawa Utamaro, The Mosquito Net, circa 1797), and the swashbuckling samurai.

And which of our own mountains is more familiar to us than the cone of Mount Fuji? The nomadic traveler Lafcadio Hearn compared it to an inverted half-open fan, or "some exquisite sloping of shoulders toward the neck." In Katsushika Hokusai's Sudden Wind on a Clear Day (circa 1830-1832), the wind has exposed the whole sweep of the landscape, and the visible grain of the wood reads as the ridges of the mountainside. Returning to those playful ceramic maps of the world, one notices that the artist has dipped his brush in blue and painted the profile of Fuji on the main island of Japan. For a split second it's possible to imagine that it really is the center of the world.

Christopher Benfey teaches at Mount Holyoke College and is a regular contributor to Slate.