Apollo

Painting Edo

Harvard Art Museums, Cambridge, MA

NOW CLOSED

Japanese Art from the Feinberg Collection

Spanning all four of its galleries, this is the largest-ever exhibition staged by the Harvard Art Museums. From hanging scrolls to folding screens, it surveys the stylistic range of Japanese cultural production in the Edo period (1615–1868). More than 120 works are on view, drawn from the collection of Robert S. and Betsy G. Feinberg, which was promised to the institution in 2013. Find out more from Harvard Art Museums’ website.

Preview the exhibition below | View Apollo’s Art Diary here

Early Evening at a Yoshiwara Inn (late 17th century), Hishikawa Moronobu.

Early Evening at a Yoshiwara Inn (late 17th century), Hishikawa Moronobu. Photo: John Tsantes and Neil Greentree; © Robert Feinberg

Hishikawa Moronobu is often described as the first master of ukiyo-e, or ‘pictures of the floating world’. This hanging scroll is a typical example of the genre’s focus on scenes of everyday life in Edo (present-day Tokyo). The viewer is privy to several vignettes, taking place simultaneously at a busy Yoshiwara teahouse: courtesans meeting and spending the night with their clients; teahouse workers preparing and serving drinks.

Cranes (c. 1820-25), Suzuki Kiitsu.

Cranes (c. 1820–25), Suzuki Kiitsu. Photos: Katya Kallsen; © President and Fellows of Harvard College

A flock of cranes is set against a gleaming gold-leaf background in this simple composition, typical of the flat, cleanly delineated subjects and bright metallic palette found in Rinpa, or the School of Korin, which first flourished in the 17th century. The style was revived two centuries later, with the earlier preference for scenes from classical literature having shifted to natural subjects such as these cranes. Formerly panels on a sliding door, these works have since been converted into a two-panel folding screen.

Harvesting Bamboo Shoots in Winter (c. mid-1760s), Tōensai Kanshi.

Harvesting Bamboo Shoots in Winter (c mid 1760s), Toensai Kanshi. Photo: Katya Kallsen; © President and Fellows of Harvard College

Theatre performers are a common subject of ukiyo-e such as this one, which depicts a courtesan in the guise of Meng Zong, a male character from Guo Jujing’s Twenty-Four Paragons of Filial Piety. Zong’s attempts to feed his mother by digging for bamboo shoots in the winter snow is rewarded by the Gods.

The Poet Su Shi (18th century), Ikeno Taiga.

The Poet Su Shi (18th century), Ikeno Taiga. Photo: John Tsantes and Neil Greentree; © Robert Feinberg

The term kijn, which might be roughly translated as ‘eccentric’, though it can also refer to outsize talent or self-seclusion, was used during the Edo period to describe unorthodox historical figures – among them the painter Ikeno Taiga. In this work the notion of kijn is embodied in the strange behaviour of its subject, the 11th-century poet Su Shi, who walks through torrential rain wearing a straw hat and wooden clogs. The rough, impressionistic style of the rendering is another unusual feature typical of Taiga’s work.

Race at Uji River (c. 1764), Soga Shōhaku.

Race at Uji River (c. 1764), Soga Shohaku. Photo: John Tsantes and Neil Greentree; © Robert Feinberg

Another ‘eccentric’ figure, Soga Shohaku is an example of the mid 18th-century trend for artists unaffiliated to any schools or houses. In a classic scene from the 14th-century Tales of Heike, the two warriors Kagesue and Takatsuna race across the Uji River, with the latter managing to distract the former and win. Shobaku’s theatrical interpretation of the scene heightens its emotional drama, emphasising the deceitful grin of one protagonist and the disorientation of the other.