Anyone with the slightest interest in Japanese art should rush to the Met Museum to see The Flowering of Edo Period Painting, a comprehensive exhibit that showcases a number of masterpieces from the Edo Period (1615-1868), the final era of Japan's insularity that ended abruptly with the fall of the Tokugawa shogunate following the arrival of Commodore Perry's ships in Edo Bay in 1853. It was during this time that much of the Japanese artwork, such as ukiyo-e, with which we in the West are now most familiar was completed. These were the works that had such enormous impact on European artists such as Van Gogh in the late nineteenth century, and influence later termed Japonisme. It was the Edo Period that witnessed a final flourishing of the visual arts before the Meiji Restoration changed the face of Japanese culture forever by opening it up to foreign influences.
When one thinks of the time in which Japan was still ruled by the shogunate, the image that first springs to a Westerner's mind is that of the ferocious samurai. Strangely, though, there are only two representations of this warlike culture included in the art shown and both those are period pieces. One is Minamoto no Yorimasa Aiming an Arrow (1847-1849), a late work by Katsushika Hokusai, an artist best known for his earlier woodblock print, also included in the show, The Great Wave off Kanagawa. This was the first time I had seen a brush painting by the artist. Done in ink and color on a hanging silk scroll, the technique gives the work more delicacy than can be seen in Hokusai's woodblock prints. The other martial work is the six-panel folding screen Race at the Uji River (1760-1767) by Soga Shōhaku. While much of Shōhaku's work, such as The Immortal Li Tieguai (1760-1764), contains an element of the fantastic, the folding screen is a fairly naturalistic depiction of a scene from Heike monogatari (The Tale of the Heike), a twelfth century work that is among the most famous in Japanese literature.
There are actually several distinct painting schools represented at this exhibit - the rinpa, the bunjinga (also known as nanga), the maruyama-shijō, and ukiyo-e - but it is perhaps more rewarding to view these works in light of their most distinguishing characteristic, an innocence of the outside world that came as a direct result of the strict Tokugawa policy of sakoku. This can be seen most clearly in the literati paintings which were generally limited in content to the depiction of Chinese subject matter and were often imitative of Chinese landscape painting. Deprived of direct contact with Chinese tradition, the Japanese literati produced works that were far removed from their sources. Peach Blossom Spring (1792) by Watanabe Gentai, for example, can be seen as following the Chinese landscape tradition but could never be mistaken as part of it.
The work which most dramatically underscores the isolation felt by the Japanese is the six-panel folding screen entitled A Portuguese Trading Ship Arrives in Japan, an anonymous painting from the early seventeenth century at the very beginning of the Edo period. Here the Japanese fascination with the outside world is made explicit. As the notes to the exhibit state:
"The Japanese called them Nanban, 'Southern Barbarians,' since they were arriving from India via a southern route. A widespread frenzy of curiosity developed about these strange new arrivals in their giant ships with booming cannons, their mustaches curling beneath their noses, the dark skins of the Goanese sailors, and their exotic clothing."
The Japanese interest in the inhabitants of other lands is also evident in a far more playful work, Tiger (c. 1630-1640) by Tawaraya Sōtatsu. It only takes one look at the painting to realize the artist has never in his life seen a real tiger. The creature depicted here, as cute and harmless as a kitten, is an unwitting caricature of the terrifying predator.
My own favorite was a painting firmly rooted in Japanese tradition, Carp and Cherry Blossom Petals in a Stream (c. 1766-1778) by Katsu Jagyoku. No obvious outside influences are at work here. The carp had been a subject for Japanese painters for centuries and is shown here together with the sakura for which the Japanese have always displayed so deep an admiration.
The exhibit continues through September 7, 2014.