Wednesday, January 2, 2019

Met Museum: Edo Paintings from the Fishbein-Bender Collection

The subtitle shown above from the current exhibit at the Met, The Poetry of Nature, is a bit misleading in that not all the works shown are from the Edo period and not all are paintings.  Nor, for that matter, are they all taken from the Fishbein-Bender Collection, magnificent as it is.  But this is only a small quibble.  The exhibit succeeds brilliantly in transporting the viewer to Japan at the time of the Tokugawa shogunate (1603-1868) whose sense of aesthetics was so vastly different from our own that it might as well have belonged to another world.

The large exhibit, which stretches through several galleries in the museum's Asian wing, contains too many items to properly discuss in so short a space; I'll limit myself to those that were of the greatest personal interest.

First, there are a large number of representations of Shinto and Buddhist iconography on view, many of these pieces pre-dating the Edo period by centuries.  Among them are two likenesses of Kannon Bodhisattva - Willow Kannon (hanging scroll, c. 1810) by Sakai Hōitsu and an anonymous lacquered wood sculpture from the 17th or 18th century - that suggest the profound influence of Mahayana Buddhism on the Japanese people.  These formal representations stand in marked contrast to a deliberately informal depiction of the Buddhist monks Kanzan and Jittoku (hanging scroll, late 18th century) by Itō Jakuchū, Hotei Pointing at the Moon (hanging scroll, c. 1650) and a portrait of Daruma (hanging scroll, early 17th century), both by Fūgai Ekun.

As the exhibit's title would indicate, most of the works on display are given over to depicting scenes of nature.  Of these there are two that that are especially noteworthy.  The first is an extremely simple, even austere, image -  Winter Scene with Ducks and Pine Trees (hanging scroll, late 1790's) by Matsumura Goshun - but I know of few other works that evoke so well the bleak emptiness of the winter landscape.  The other is Lions at the Stone Bridge of Mount Tiantai (hanging scroll, 1779) by Soga Shōhaku.  The scene of a mother lion tossing her cubs from the top of the mountain into a deep chasm may have been intended as an analogy of the Buddhist master who similarly shocks his students into sudden enlightenment (satori), but whatever its inner meaning the image is filled with dramatic tension set against the mountain's natural majesty. 

The Edo period was renowned for its elegant portrayals of women.  Something of their graceful manner can even be detected in the Willow Kannon mentioned above, but it is far more apparent in the hanging scrolls of Sakai Hōitsu and Hishikawa Moronobu and in the ukiyo-e prints of Chōbunsai Eishi and Ichirakutei Eisui.  The languid poses of these courtesans are in startling contrast to the ferocious vigor of the lengendary goddess Jingū in two hanging scrolls from the mid-19th century, one by Kōsai Hokushin and the other from the studio of the legendary ukiyo-e artist Katsushika Hokusai.

The two most dramatic works at the exhibit are not from the Edo period, but the Meiji.  These are The Fury of Monk Raigō (hanging scroll, 1900) by Kobayashi Kiyochika that depicts the monk raging against the Emporer Shirakawa over a perceived slight, and Fudō Myōō Threatening a Novice (polychrome woodblock print, 1885) by Tsukioka Yoshitoshi, whom I've always considered the greatest of all ukiyo-e artists, that depicts the Buddhist deity, one of the Five Wisdom Kings, attempting to force a novice to swallow a sword as a means of attaining enlightenment.  Although these works portray mythical rather than historical scenes, I don't think it's accidental that they both contain extremely violent imagery.  Instead, it could be argued that they reflect the turmoil Japan underwent in the Meiji era when centuries old tradition was cast aside in favor of a disastrous process of Westernization.

There are two other works from later periods, the Shōwa and Heisei respectively, that demonstrate strikingly the continuation of Edo period traditions in the work of contemporary Japanese artists.  These are Kegon Waterfall (lithograph from a gelatin silver print in the form of a hanging scroll, 1976) by Hiroshi Sugimoto and Shrine of the Water God (six-panel folding screen, 2015) by Hiroshi Senju.  Not only are both these works masterful in technique but they also display the same love of nature that has characterized Japanese art throughout its history.

The exhibit continues through January 21, 2019.

No comments:

Post a Comment