Style Was Key

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Half the population of Washington may still be lining up to see the Van Gogh show, but the exhibition that Vincent himself, as an obsessed lover of Japanese art, would most likely be heading for hangs in another part of the National Gallery of Art. It is "Edo: Art in Japan 1615-1868," a magnificent selection of nearly 300 works in every medium, from woodblock prints to lacquerware, from tiny netsuke to eight-fold painted screens, assembled by the American scholar Robert Singer and mostly lent by Japanese institutions. It is replete with objects listed in Japan as "National Treasures" and "Important Cultural Properties," many of which have never been seen outside Japan until now. No Edo show of such range or quality has been attempted in the U.S. before, and this one succeeds brilliantly.

"Edo" was both a place and a time frame. It was the old name of the city we call Tokyo, and "Edo period" denotes the 2 1/2 centuries during which an absolute regime, founded there in the early 17th century by the military lord, or shogun, Tokugawa Ieyasu, ruled over all Japan through 15 generations of his descendants. The symbolic moment at which the period began to close was 1853, when Commodore Perry's black ships, crewed by their blue-eyed, spindle-nosed, strange-smelling gaijin, the Americans, sailed into lower Edo Bay and broke the seal of isolation from the West that the Tokugawa dynasty had imposed on Japan for so long.

It is not true, however, that Japan had been culturally static until then. Japan's ancient imperial capital Kyoto represented the classic division of old Japanese power: court, samurai, priests. It continued to exert a great influence on the country's art. But in Edo, a more secular and even demotic imagination began to assert itself--marked, writes Singer, by "bold, sometimes brash expression...and a playful outlook on life in general." This happened because Japanese society, in the new capital, became somewhat more open to change. Not very much, but a little, and then a little more. The once despised merchants and entrepreneurs, and other commoners too, were developing their own tastes. They became an important cultural force. So did a kind of city mentality. Edo Japan saw a great expansion of popular culture in its new capital, from the "high" forms of No and Bunraku theater to every sort of comedy and mime and burlesque as well.

These, like the doings of sumo wrestlers and high-class prostitutes, gave a rich subject matter to 18th century graphic artists like Suzuki Harunobu, Kitagawa Utamaro and the theater caricaturist Toshusai Sharaku, whose image of the actor Otani Oniji III playing a samurai's manservant, all red-rimmed eyes and stylish snarl, is a deliciously succinct expression of fictive bloody-mindedness. Through the medium of prints, the range of things that could be depicted widened to take in all Japan. Katsushika Hokusai's Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji and Ando Hiroshige's Fifty-Three Stations of the Tokaido are both travelogues and social listings, in which every sort of occupation, from pit sawing to innkeeping, gets its allotted description. This scrutiny of lower-class life would never have held so much interest to an earlier Japan. Manga, images of common life, are the direct ancestors of the modern Japanese comic strip.

What's more, a sense of humor--even of irreverence--began to seep into religious imagery. Witness a marvelous ink painting of vegetables by Ito Jakuchu (1716-1800). You can read it, with pleasure, as a supremely assured market still life (Jakuchu was, in fact, a vegetable wholesaler before he turned to painting full time). Gourds, melons, turnips, ears of corn and a shiitake mushroom surround an enormous forked white radish, lying as if in state on a basket. But as Singer points out, an educated 18th century Japanese would have recognized this as a parody of a familiar religious image--the parinirvana, or scene of the dead Buddha encircled by a crowd of his mourning disciples. You only need to try to imagine a Western equivalent to this--a deposition from the cross, say, with Christ as a carrot--to realize what a gulf lay between Buddhist and Christian attitudes. Part of Jakuchu's point is that his image is not merely blasphemous, and was not thought to be: radishes, like all other living things, have their Buddha nature. And yet it's funny--as much of a joke as one of the Zen classics in the show: Sengai Gibon's beatifically smiling frog in meditation.

During the Edo period, traders, moneylenders and shopkeepers were getting richer--the Tokugawas sealed Japan off from Western contacts but emphatically not from trade with other parts of Asia. They wanted conspicuous works of art and had the money to commission them. The demand for superfine objects, in which ordinary things like writing boxes or game boards were raised to the condition of art by means of exquisite decoration, was underwritten by the Japanese convention of giving gifts--as tribute, tokens of loyalty, signs of gratitude. The gift was a much more important social symbol in Japan than in the West, and the circulation of luxury objects fostered a level of design and craftsmanship that was, by modern Western standards, almost unimaginably high.

Meanwhile, the upper samurai class, now that Japan was politically unified, had less butchery to do and more time to spend on matters of high culture, especially the observance of form in such areas as calligraphy, the "way" of tea and the artifacts that were tied into it, ceremonial dress, and brush painting linked to the imported cult of Zen Buddhism. Some of the most memorable samurai objects in this show could not have had much military use; they are kawari kabuto, spectacular parade helmets--the ancestors of Darth Vader's mask--worn to impress the living daylights out of commoners. The variety of shapes the helmets came in was mind-boggling. Some of them referred to family crests, but many seem to be sheer fantasy in the form of carps' tails, clamshells, whirlpools, morning glories, fans, bats' ears or crabs. A great example in this show purports to represent a mountain with two valleys, its surface covered with silver leaf, now blackened with age: pure sculpture for the head.

The helmet's role as a sign of authority was backed up by other samurai artifacts: body armor, which turned its wearer into a bizarrely plated red lobster, and, of course, the weapons, the long sword known as a katana and the shorter wakizashi, together with their elaborate hilts, scabbards and other fittings, to which a large body of lore and connoisseurship attached. The figure who most vividly expressed the relation between culture and the samurai ethos remained a legend long after his death. He was Miyamoto Musashi (1584-1645), who wrote a famous text on swordplay (A Book of Five Rings) and reputedly killed 60 swordsmen before his 30th birthday; he then gave up killing in favor of painting and calligraphy. One of his ink paintings is in the show, a swiftly brushed image of a shrike balanced on a branch above a caterpillar that is crawling upward, presumably to its doom. It is a graphic masterpiece. You feel the tension in the body of the bird as it balances before striking, and every flick of the brush bespeaks alertness.

It may be that no civilization, East or West, attained a greater refinement in the decorative arts than Edo Japan. Ceramics, lacquer and textiles were brought to an extraordinary pitch of aesthetic concentration by a large body of artisans whose collective skills have never been surpassed, in Japan or anywhere else. And skill was key. Edo artists and patrons loved virtuosity within a given medium, but they didn't have a hierarchy of art and craft. To them, the work of the lacquerer or the papermaker was no less worthy than that of the screen painter, and in any case so many media could converge in a single work that art hierarchy became meaningless.

Which is not to say that the Edo period lacked individual artists who were seen, then and now, as stars. Its core achievement, in painting, was the allusive and delicate work of the so-called Rimpa artists: Tawaraya Sotatsu and Hon'ami Koetsu in the 17th century, and later the brothers Ogata Korin and Ogata Kenzan, Sakai Hoitsu and others. The show abounds in their work, especially the large folding screens that were Japan's closest equivalent to Western murals. Hoitsu (1761-1828) is represented by one of his finest screens, Flowers and Grasses of Summer and Autumn, in which you can almost feel the wind bending the rhythmical pattern of stems and leaves against their silver ground.

Some works of art celebrated others. There was a whole category, for instance, known as tagasode ("whose sleeves?") or sometimes kosode (small sleeves): screen paintings that depicted women's robes draped casually over a hanging frame, their emptiness carrying a light but distinct erotic flavor. Sometimes their elaborate designs were replicated in paint, but in one screen in this show the fragments of the robes themselves were glued to the gold-leaf surface in a supremely elegant, early form of collage.

Skill, once demonstrated, could be elegantly volatilized. Edo taste valued the unfinished, the rough. One of the masters of the pictorial throwaway line was Ogata Kenzan, best known as a potter. He and his more famous brother Ogata Korin--whose paintings mark the apotheosis of lyrical, erudite Edo painting--left an indelible mark on Edo style. Nothing could seem more offhand than Kenzan's scroll The Eight-Fold Bridge, an illustration of a poem with the poem itself written into it--the planks of the bridge brusquely indicated, the calligraphy mingling with the broadly brushed leaves of water iris as if it too were part of the reed growth of the pond. And yet the whole image has an iron control within its spontaneity. This casual rightness of design cannot be feigned. It was rooted in the desire to understand nature by becoming part of nature. And Edo art, at its best, was all about that: the fusion of nature and culture, at a level of craft that is now lost to the world, East or West.