Artists of Edo 1800-1850--- Freer Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, through May 29, 2006.

The Freer regularly rotates its Japanese and Chinese paintings and prints on and off exhibition, because of the size of the collection, the limited gallery space and the light-sensitivity and fragility of the works.  Currently, their Japanese screen room and two rooms of Japanese paintings and prints house the exhibition Painters of Edo, drawn from the collection.  The city now called Tokyo was known as Edo from at least the beginning of the Tokugawa shogunate around 1600, until the Meiji restoration (of the emperor) of 1868.  When the Tokugawa located their "Eastern capital" there (while the emperor, more of a figurehead, remained in Kyoto), the city rapidly grew to become the largest in the world, aided by the shogun's requirement that the daimyo, provincial feudal lords, spend alternate years there, and by the rapid growth of the merchant and townsman class, or chonin, during the stable and peaceful, if somewhat totalitarian, rule of the shogunal administration known as  the bakufu.  Daimyo and their samurai retainers, and samurai involved in the bakufu, brought to the city artists associated with the traditional Chinese-influenced Kano, and more native Tosa, schools of painting, to provide appropriately tasteful and impressive decoration for their mansions, while the vigorous townsman culture of merchants and craftspeople supported the burgeoning of the Ukiyo-e school of prints, painting, and woodblock books associated with and most often depicting the entertainments of the chonin---courtesans and geisha of the pleasure quarters, kabuki actors and sumo wrestlers, bustling townscapes, middle-class families on outings to the park for cherry-blossom viewing, picnicking, and such.

Ukiyo-e clearly dominates this exhibition, and naturally so, for the Edo period is virtually coextensive with the rise and flowering of  the Ukiyo-e school.  The more samurai-associated traditions of Tosa and Kano were arguably on the decline during the period, although there were various other major developments, such as the Nanga school (like Kano, Chinese-influenced, but perhaps more purely by the "amateur" scholar-painter tradition than Kano with its tendency toward grandeur), and the highly decorative Rimpa school.  

As usual, four screens are on display in the long, spacious screen room.  On the left as you enter is a pair of six-panel screens, relatively short, with a vertical-format painting on silk of a view of Edo by Hiroshige in the center of each panel.  Many, though not all, of the scenes are very close to ones in his well-known late, vertical oban print series, 100 Views of Edo.  The tones are quite subdued compared to the prints, however, with much use of ink washes, and delicate colors.  The Moon Pine at Ueno, "Grandpa's" teahouse at Meguro, Dokanyama, and Sekiguchi Joshihata (Koume embankment) are among those that are very close to the prints.  Akasaka Kiribatake is a bit less close to the print, and Fukugawa kiba, while still clearly a mutation, and a very enjoyable one, of the well-known print of  the lumberyards, canal, and puppies in the snow, strays from the print even more.  Others, like the two variants on "Sumidagawa", the Sumida river, don't obviously suggest prints from the series (though this could be a fault of my memory); the second Sumidagawa (ninth panel) even features the anachronistic figure of the poet and Casanova Ariwara no Narihira (825--880).  Among these is one of my favorites, Takanawa no Tsuki, Moon of Takanawa.  Takanawa was a spot where people often came to view the moored boats and the moon over the water, and enjoy a snack or some tea in a stall, all elements present in this painting.  The foreground is less crowded with stalls and activity than in some renditions of this scene, and the overall impression is quietly lyrical, reminding me somewhat of a horizontal-format print I own from an earlier series of  Edo prints by Hiroshige.  While these panels are not perhaps among the most rarefied masterpieces of the show, they are a wonderful opportunity to contrast Hiroshige's painting and print styles, the delicate and subdued ink washes providing a different impression of Edo from the bold colors and often brash designs of the closely related 100 Views.

Facing the Hiroshige is one of the masterworks of early Ukiyo-e painting, a pair of screens by Hishikawa Moronobu, Autumn at Asakusa and  Cherry Blossom Viewing at  Ueno.  Though now bordered by concrete apartment blocks and commercial buildings in places, Ueno park is still the site of cherry-blossom viewing in spring in present-day Tokyo.  The Ueno screen presents, fairly uniformly distributed on a ground featuring much gold leaf, groups of merrymakers involved in the gamut of springtime park activities: strolling around Shinobazu no ike (Shinobazu pond), visiting shrines, picknicking within a portable cloth fence enclosure bringing to mind  medieval outings of samurai and nobles on the remote hillsides.  The beautifully drawn figures, with Moronobu's smooth, lyrical, but not over-the-top line, interact naturally, though they are noticeably more stylized, characteristically of Ukiyo-e, than their predecessors in 15th and early 16th century genre painting.  The whole painting, too, is a clear descendant of the earlier Kyoto genre paintings showing such things as amusements in the Kamo river bed.  The small flat areas of limpid but vivid colors--reds, blues, greens, whites, yellows---are like gems set in Moronobu's ink brushwork

Next to the Moronobu, at the South end of the gallery, is a large, masterful black-and-white ink painting of a dragon emerging from swirling clouds, attributed to Sotatsu.  While excellent, I was less drawn to it than the other screens.  Facing it is another masterwork, a set of two six-panel screens "Scenes of the Four Seasons" signed Hishikawa Sori.  These were formerly attributed to Hokusai who used the name Sori for a time, and (along with many other works with this signature in the exhibition) now attributed by the Freer to one of Hokusai's pupils, Hishikawa Sori III, who presumably received the name from Hokusai.  Whoever he was, he could paint.  The screens feature a background of mountains in various tones of mostly blues and greys, reminiscent of the ancient (and frequently revived) Chinese "blue and green" style of mountain, and also of the work of another Hokusai pupil, Gakutei, in woodblock landscape picture books like Sansui Gajo and Ichiro Gafu (roughly contemporaneous with the early 19th century screens).  Tucked into the foreground slopes, rivers, plains, and forest are wonderfully painted vignettes of seasonal activities, each involving a few figures:  plowing rice-fields, eating in a small lean-to, a mother and child visiting a shrine. Each season gets three panels; the seasons pass in panorama from right to left, finishing with the hush of snow on the mountains.

The larger of the two painting and print rooms holds many treasures, but of these the two paintings by Toyoharu stand out.  A large vertical scroll painting depicts two women and a young girl at the seashore.  Their faces are superbly painted, quite naturalistic, with a delicate suggestion of three-dimensionality and an expressiveness not always present in Ukiyo-e.  Theire is a rich but subtle variety of decorative detail in the painting because both natural patterns and the designs of  the women's kimono echo each other.  The pine at upper right shows the influence of Kano school nature painting, as Harold Stern points out in his notes for a 1973 exhibition catalog.  The water is beautifully done, using time-honored Japanese wavy-line conventions to remarkably naturalistic effect.  The two women glance down, naturally, at the young girl they are with, who has caught a flatfish, pressing it gently against the bed of the clear stream.  The combination of a subtle version of the sumptuous and richly colorful decorative tendencies of Ukiyo-e painting with a vivid and realistic portrayal of nature and people make this a masterpiece.  

The other Toyoharu masterpiece in this room is a large, horizontal format painting of three geisha entertaining two men in a teahose, with a view behind them into the snowy teahouse garden, with its stone lantern and bridge.  At right a seated geisha plays the samisen while a man seated next to her tips a sake cup to her lips; humorously, his kimono parts to show a little thigh, a touch more often associated with women in Ukiyo-e art, for example as a light erotic touch in prints or in the less explicit images from a shunga album.  The long pipe of the geisha at center, carelessly dangling as she chats with the client, points the gaze toward this bit of parody, ensuring it isn't missed.  At left, another man and a geisha tuning her samisen;  before them, trays of food in lacquered, decorated bowls, chopsticks, a pipe or two and tobacco pouches; between the two groups of figures, food cooks.  It's a masterpiece of balanced composition and rich but mostly far from primary, subdued, various yet harmonious color, with just enough of the purer reds and greens in the trays and dishes, sake cups, and flashes of the geishas' under-kimonos.  The interaction between the figures is superb, and an essential part of the composition as well.  The parallel diagonals of the tatami create a sense of the space and lead the eye out to the garden behind.  The painting has similarities to another Toyoharu of circa 1784 illustrated in black and white in the catalogue of the Gale collection (Hillier, 1970), of "Segawa Kikunojo III at a party".  Both feature a standing woman at right, and four seated figures, divided into groups of two and three, but in the Gale painting there are three on the left, two on the right, though with glances linking all five figures, but less direct interaction, so that figures gazes do not seem to meet.  The dynamic in the Kikunojo painting seems less intimate, each figure appearing as partly wrapped up in his or her own thoughts even in social interchange, while in the Freer painting the direct eye contact both separates the figures into groups of two and three, while creating a feel of intimacy, ease, and relaxation.  In both paintings, interior space is delineated by the diagonals formed by the edges of tatami mats and the verticals and latticework of the shoji they lead past to an outdoor scene, but in the Gale painting, the shoji is open on the left as well as the back, to a garden with fence, vine shoot starting up a support, stepping-stone path wonderfully painted in sumi, and the bottom of a tree (plum?) with suckers sprouting.    A wonderful landscape screen of mountains, waters, a glimpse of a boat and tree branches at right sports Toyoharu's signature.  The view of the garden, cut off vertically at the top, but extending around the room to the left because of the two areas of open shoji, implicitly situates the Kikunojo party in a broader world (as does the visible bit of fence, and also the landscape screen), as does the simultaneous self-consciousness and interaction of the figures.  In the Freer painting, only a small, closed portion of the shoji wall at the left is shown, there is no screen at right, and the regularly repeated motif of peony (?) on the lower wall beneath the shoji gives a more formal, enclosing feeling as well.  The teahouse garden beyond is more of a neatly framed vista, complete in itself and extending to a horizon line, with pond, bridge, pines and other trees, lantern, and what appear to be small hills, but no hint of a fence or anything beyond this magical vista... the painting is thus a vision of relaxed, poised, light-hearted escape into a wonderland of exquisitely refined pleasures, rather than the meeting of overlapping social spheres of the Gale piece.  Toyoharu was quite aware of at least some aspects of Western art, producing many uki-e, or linear perspective prints, for example, and though it may not be fair or realistic to attribute his skill in figure composition to Western influence one sees a touch of  Raphael or Michelangelo in the superbly done figure-groupings of the Freer painting.  I would tentatively judge the Freer painting the greater masterpiece, mostly on the basis of the greater naturalness, ease, and even lyrical grace of the human interaction it depicts, and also the almost lyric classicism of its composition, but that is not quite fair having not even seen a color reproduction of the Gale work.    What the two paintings on display, especially the teahouse scene, do make clear is that Toyoharu is a great master, probably at his peak in painting more than in prints.

This room also features a simple, but nice painting of the courtesan Takao by Hiroshige, and a painting by Hokusai pupil Katsushika Hokukon, signed Hokukon Joen, of three Chinese worthies, Lin Bei, Zhang Fei, and Guang Yu (?), in a horizontal view of a busy winter scene in front of a cottage, surrounded by brush, strongly Kano and Nanga influenced.  A large horizontal Gakutei of two reclining courtesans reading is also wonderful if slightly mannered, featuring his Hokusai-derived nervously wriggling line building up the monumental kimono folds of the rather imposing courtesans of the time, here shown in repose.  A couple of Chinese-style (Nanga?) landscapes by Watanabe Gentai also please.  More unusual is a vertical landscape by the early 19th century Nanga painter and designer of woodblock books, Tani Buncho (who should not be confused with the late 18th century Ukiyo-e print master Ippitsusai Buncho---not that there would be any chance of confusing their work once seen).  The composition reminds one of a scaled down version of the Chinese painter Kuo Hsi (Guo Hsi)'s landmark Sung Dynasty masterwork, with its fantastically sculpted central mountain flanked by receding vistas with horizon-lines at different levels, but here done in a less monumental, more casual manner characteristic of the scholar-painter tradition of China that so influenced Nanga, populated with figures and enlivened with color.  It is very different from the often so simple as to be almost Korin-like, sketches, figures, and creatures of  Buncho's color ehon.  

The central case in the room features, on one side, a superb gold-leaf backed album of surimono by "Gakutei and others," where the others include a wonderful bijin (beautiful woman) by Kunisada, and a Shigenobu.  On the other side, it contains a Hiroshige sketchbook which cannot be too highly praised, showing his greatest strength as a painter to have been in these simple but exquisite sketches of relatively few lines, superb use of color washes and areas of blank paper, and a style quite influenced by the Shijo school.  A courtesan and attendant kneeling, seen from behind, with kimono designs in rose and black sumi, are wonderfully done and echo a pair of Sori III paintings to be encountered in the next room.

These paintings in turn recall, not surprisingly, Hokusai's own paintings of the era in which he was signing himself "Hokusai Sori," such as the "Strolling Courtesan" in the Gale collection, of a courtesan in profile walking past a lantern, kimono mostly in black sumi wahses but with wide swathes of reddish-rose undergarment, sumptuous obi of peackock feathers (or some blossom?) on light rose.  This last, small,  room is dedicated to Sori III, with several excellent sketches on fans and other paintings.  Most notably, a pair of paintings on the west wall are nicely matched.  A simple but effective vertical scroll of a courtesan beside kimono stand is on the right, while a superb "Courtesans dressing and making up" is on the left.  The variety of superbly patterned garments, furnishings, and implements of toiletry make up a complex and skilfully handled composition.  I was initially pleased at the unusual, slightly surprised expression of one of the courtesans, as I appreciate expressive faces instead of the uniform impassive facial beauty sometimes exhibited by Ukiyo-e women, but then I noticed the other two courtesans wore similar expressions... an effect, perhaps, of the symmetrically shaped eyes, painted as two segments of a circle meeting in corners like the pointed end of an almond. I think I may detect a similar effect in many compositions of many Ukiyo-e painters including Hokusai and his pupils of that era (Gakutei, for one) and the decorative richness and compositional interest of this painting overcomes this slight flaw.

This exhibition, and the Freer holdings in general, make a strong case for viewing, against the position of even some very knowledgeable connoisseurs and scholars especially in the West, Ukiyo-e painting as not only crucial to understanding the careers and artistic milieu of the great print artists, but as clearly equal in artistic value to the prints that are mostly better known.  If some of the greatest artists are perhaps better in the medium of print than of painting, others reach their pinnacle in painting, and although the more graphic line of many of the prints may appeal more easily to modern Western taste, the paintings' seeming fascination with color and decorative detail coupled with softer line, while it may seem weak and excessively sweet and superficial at first, is capable of  creating visions of the human and natural world, and imaginative creations taking off from them, fully as complex, beautiful, and enduring as those of the prints.  

Copyright 2006, Howard N. Barnum, III.  All rights reserved.