A Sweeping Exhibit Spans 250 Years of Japanese Art

Paintings from the Edo period convey “a powerful sense of there-ness.” 

Detail of a painting showing long grasses and the moon
Tani Bunchō, Grasses and Moon (detail), Japanese, Edo period, 1817.Image: John Tsantes and Neil Greentree; © Robert Feinberg.
A painting of a male peacock in full plumage, with pink peonies in full bloom
Maruyama Ōkyo, Peacock and Peonies (detail), Japanese, Edo period, 1768. 
Image: John Tsantes and Neil Greentree; © Robert Feinberg. 
A detailed mountain landscape with village buildings, in the Chinese style
Nakabayashi Chikutō, Chinese Landscape (detail), Japanese, Edo period, c. 1815.
Image: Mary Kocol; © President and Fellows of Harvard College. 
Two armored warriors race their horses along a foaming river
Soga Shōhaku, Race at Uji River (detail), Japanese, Edo period, c. 1764.Image: John Tsantes and Neil Greentree; © Robert Feinberg. 
A grouping of Japanese cranes against a gold background
Suzuki Kiitsu, Cranes (detail), Japanese, Edo period, c. 1820–25.Images: Katya Kallsen; © President and Fellows of Harvard College. 
Maple trees with red and green foliage against a gold background
Tawaraya Sōri, Autumn Maple Trees (detail), Japanese, Edo period, second half 18th century.Image: Katya Kallsen; © President and Fellows of Harvard College. 
A young woman stands in a field in the snow
Tōensai Kanshi, Harvesting Bamboo Shoots in Winter (detail), Japanese, Edo period, c. mid-1760s.Image: Katya Kallsen; © President and Fellows of Harvard College. 
A lone traveler in a wintry mountain setting
Yosa Buson, Lone Traveler in Wintry Mountains (detail), Japanese, Edo period, c. 1770–75.Image: John Tsantes and Neil Greentree; © Robert Feinberg.  
Drawings of the statesman Meng Jia losing his hat (left), and of the poet Su Shi in a rainstorm
Ikeno Taiga, The Poet Su Shi (right screen); Meng Jia Loses His Hat (left screen). Japanese, Edo period, 18th century.
Images: John Tsantes and Neil Greentree; © Robert Feinberg. 
Painting of women and men preparing for evening guests at an inn in Edo’s red-light district
Hishikawa Moronobu, Early Evening at a Yoshiwara Inn (detail), Japanese, Edo period, late 17th century.  Image: John Tsantes and Neil Greentree; © Robert Feinberg.  

“Edo is both a time and a place,” said curator Rachel Saunders, at the start of a preview tour of “Painting Edo,” which opens today as the largest special exhibition ever staged at the Harvard Art Museums. It is a sumptuous and diverse assemblage: 120 works of Japanese art spanning three wide gallery spaces—silk screens and hanging scrolls and folding fans, brightly colored scenes, black-and-white ink washes, landscapes, interiors, portraits of people, depictions of birds and flowers and fish, and canvas after canvas shimmering with gold paint. The artworks are part of a much larger collection belonging to Robert Feinberg ’61 and Betsy Feinberg, which the couple spent the past 50 years building and have promised as a major gift to the museums. The exhibit was co-curated by Saunders, who is Rockefeller curator of Asian art, and Yukio Lippit, the Chambers and Okamura professor of history of art and architecture (read a previous profile here).

“As a place, Edo is the city that we know today as Tokyo,” Saunders continued. In 1603, it began a transformation from a sleepy fishing village on the eastern edge of Japan to an enormous, flourishing city, the de facto capital of the shōgun warrior government. By the mid eighteenth century, it was the largest city in the world, with more than a million inhabitants. The Edo period lasted until 1868, when the military government was overthrown and imperial rule restored in Japan. The intervening 250 years brought peace and prosperity, after centuries of war. Japan’s economy grew, agricultural innovation surged forward, and the country’s insular society began rapidly modernizing, as the shōgun rulers opened the doors to some extent to the outside world.  

All those changes were reflected in art, with a profusion of diversifying schools and conventions and creative impulses. Saunders described a “convergence” of contemporary and historical subjects, of high and low traditions. During the preview tour, she and Lippit pointed out paintings done in a deliberately unskilled and amateurish style, by artists seeking a sense of authenticity, of “living out a trope” of “working from desire, from inspiration,” not professionalism. Elsewhere, they highlighted a series of works depicting scenes from the pleasure quarters and kabuki theaters—the “demimonde of Edo society”—called “floating worlds” paintings because of the imaginative escape they gave to urban workers newly arrived from the countryside who felt dislocated and alienated in the city. 

The co-curators also explained the majestic, sweeping work of elite painters in the shōgunate’s rigid feudal system, and that of “eccentric” artists like Soga Shōhaku, who was orphaned at 17 and reinvented himself as a self-taught painter. His 1764 painting Race at Uji River—showing two lavishly armed warriors with wild expressions splashing on horseback through swirling water—would have appeared “garish” and “histrionic,” by the traditional standards of his day, Lippit said. And while some Edo artists brought the present into paintings that showed contemporary urban life and the fashions and customs of their time, others revisited (and reinterpreted) the pastoral imagery and symbols of the classical, imperial past. Saunders and Lippit began their tour of the exhbition with 1817 ink painting Grasses and Moon, dramatizing a longstanding poetic idea that the act of gazing up at the moon could connect friends and loved ones across vast distances. The perspective, looking up to the sky through the reeds, he said, “conveys a powerful sense of there-ness.”

Wrangling the breadth and richness of all this artwork proved a curatorial challenge, Lippit added: “The real analogue of Edo painting in Europe is all of early modern European painting.” Each of the exhibit’s sections—organized around 10 “chapters”—“is like the golden age of Spanish painting or seventeenth-century Dutch painting. That’s the scale at which we are working.” 

There were other challenges, too. Originally, these paintings would have been viewed from a seated position on the floor, and many of the pieces themselves would have rested at floor-level. “It would be inconceivable, actually, in the Edo period that there would be viewers like us standing up, scratching our chins, looking at a painting,” Lippit said. Museum staff worked to recreate those original sightlines, explained assistant director for exhibitions Elie Glyn, and adjusted the texture, lighting, and position of display cases to give visitors a sense of the intimate domestic surroundings the paintings would have had in interior alcoves or tea huts. 

Rounding one last corner in the exhibit, in a section called “Remembering Edo,” Saunders and Lippit showed a wall of “floating” fans in glass frames, meant to evoke a pictorial idiom from the period: a river studded with paper fans, dropped from a bridge and floating away on the current. “At the end of the summer season when your fan has been used up,” Saunders said, referring to one origin story of the classical image, “even though it’s beautiful and precious, or was painted by a friend, or gifted to you, or may contain a poem—when it’s used up, it’s used up. And what do you do then? Well, maybe you elegantly, with other people, toss your fan from a bridge and see it run away on the tide.”  

Painting Edo” is on display through July 26. In early May, the curators will rotate some of the artworks out in exchange for others from the Feinberg collection, to help preserve light-sensitive paintings and to refresh the exhibit. 

Read more articles by Lydialyle Gibson

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