“It’s almost against gravity,” Walter Kikuchi, a Harvard Art Museums patron, said. He gazed at a woman in a geometric robe. Her clothing is delineated by a thick smudged stroke, like one big shape. Her likeness is part of the largest temporary exhibit to date at the Harvard Art Museums — “Painting Edo” — a 120-piece collection of fans, silk scrolls, and room dividers that aims to “tell a comprehensive story of Edo painting on its own terms,” according to the press release. Hailing from the Feinberg Collection of Japanese Art, “Painting Edo” is one of the largest art gifts ever bequeathed to Harvard.
“I found myself reminding myself to take a step back and look at it as a physical object. Look at the areas around the imagery, the quality of the paper, the way they set the image off within the structure,” museum-goer Daniel Bromberger said.
He paced beside a painted screen the size of a wall, paused, then paced back. On the screen, Japanese courtesans weave their hands together, play chess, then the zither, and compose waka. The mural is called “The Four Accomplishments” of Chinese civilization. Crossing a bridge from spring blossoms to autumn leaves, the courtesans — draped in geometric silks — rush to a position they aren’t. During the Edo period, Japan, for the first time, moved from artistic isolationism to absorbing and transmitting outside influences. Here, per the screen’s gallery text, Edo art parodies venerable Chinese themes.
Across the room, “A Portuguese Trading Ship Arrives in Japan” depicts the aforementioned arrival of the Portuguese in 1543 with Jesuit missionaries, who quickly became omnipresent on the archipelago. They are scraggly-faced titans: egg-headed, in foreign florals or checkered shirts. One pins himself to the mast of the ship, like Odysseus pining for a Siren’s call.
The painting is not an eyewitness account, but, per the text, an ode to genre paintings of Chinese ships landing on Japanese shores. This relationship to Chinese genre painting links the two screens together. The gallery text in the exhibit’s opening room asks: How does art reflect the lineage of Japanese culture?
In the next room, the pieces face each other. The floating people in stilted shoes on the patterned, stamped silks are of numerous artistic styles, each one different from the last. There is the Kabuki actor; the coquette, biting her little red lips; another woman is unaware of the onlookers from the gallery floor and the walls, or perhaps averting her eyes. Another holds her hand — invisible under a swath of fabric — to her chin, self-assured.
“The fabric moves, but not in a way that feels unrealistic to me or like it’s wrong… It doesn’t feel like it’s pulled down to the ground in certain parts. It’s more about the shapes that the fabric makes than trying to depict the weight,” Kikuchi said.
In the distance, a garden of chrysanthemums “transition to wintry nandina with scarlet berries, white narcissus, and bamboo grass,” per the gallery description.
Edo-era art demonstrates a balance of naturalism and expressionism, according to a gallery text description of a lotus pond. It is not enough to capture the likeness of an object, because without recording its essence, its depiction is not truthful. The Edo era would be followed by the Meiji era, where Japan rushed to globalize. Like the Edo period, in the Meiji period “artists found new ways to frame the past in the present and the present in the past,” the gallery text reads.
“[The patrons are] going with the passion of their dreams and leaving with their fulfillment,” said Suresh Ayyagari, the museum attendant in the gallery. “There were monks in what people call Shaolin Temple. They put into action things that they wanted to express in their art, in the way of art. In the 21st century, this ancient knowledge was stowed and shown to the people of the next generation. That is the greatness of this art as well.”