FLOATING WORLD: JAPAN IN THE EDO PERIOD, by John Reeve. British Museum Press, 2006, 96 pp., £9.99 (cloth)
Museums frequently produce books, calendars and postcards based on the exhibits. The British Museum, however, perhaps because of the richness of its collection and the sheer numbers of people who come to see it, is able to support an unusually large publishing program. This includes a wide range of educational materials and specialist academic studies, besides the general guides.
These two handsomely produced books are but two examples from its varied publications. Each belongs to a particular series, and is lavishly illustrated from the museum’s collection. John Reeve, the compiler of both books, is an acknowledged authority on Japanese artworks. The contents of each volume are arranged thematically, rather than chronologically, and on the whole this seems an appealing arrangement.
In “Japanese Art in Detail,” after a short introduction — where we learn, for example, that “Japan has the oldest ceramic tradition in the world,” and how woodblock prints are made — there is a chapter on “Serenity.” Nearly every page has a color illustration, and the process of examination in each case is much like the way you view something in a gallery or a museum: First you take in the whole, then step closer to examine details. Here a bronze or wooden statue is quickly followed by a closeup of the hand or face.
The method is much the same throughout, and the effect can be quite extraordinary: Suddenly we see every hair in a tiger’s coat, or the threads and weave in a silk painting. Subsequent chapters, on “Nature,” “Beauty” and “Turmoil,” introduce lacquerware and pottery and painted screens. The author tells us that pictures are read from right to left, and alerts us to the importance of diagonals.
A great 16-panel screen of a river festival, we learn, has no fixed viewpoint, as indeed it cannot have, though the viewpoints in certain woodblock prints had great influence on Western artists. A tiny picture of a Western beauty, highlighted for us on a table near a courtesan, reminds us of the traffic in imagery both ways. Hokusai and Hiroshige prints of Mount Fuji are juxtaposed with a modern image of the mountain, caught between high buildings in the urban sprawl.
Now and then, reading the book in Tokyo, I was tempted to see the past in the present. Delicately carved netsuke look like an early version of the baubles on a mobile phone; women at their toilet, once so private, are now on public show in every carriage of a metropolitan train. The sumo wrestlers painted in brilliant hues by the contemporary artist Ay-o jolt our sensibilities, even though their shape is taken directly from an early print. The mixture of the old and new is quite refreshing.
John Reeve sets up incidental parallels in his exposition, and encourages the reader to explore. To that end the British Museum itself provides an online database called COMPASS ( www.thebritishmuseum.ac.uk/compass ). The book is not meant to be about only one collection, for “the purposes of looking closely” can be applied to “other public and private collections worldwide,” and leads to these are given. It is the knowing how to look that matters.
Some of the pictures in “Japanese Art in Detail” reappear in the second title, a smaller but highly attractive volume that is essentially a gift book. The British Museum’s “Floating World” gathers pictures from the world of pleasure and entertainment. It includes some poems from the popular Haiku title in this series, edited by David Cobb, while several other titles take love poetry from different cultures and ages as their theme. Oddly, many of the quotes in “Floating World” come from the middle ages.
Perhaps the emotions of lovers in the 12th-century Heian court were similar to those of the later Edo Period, though the “floating world” of the Yoshiwara brothel district, for instance, was much more risky and restricted. Stories of that world can still be seen in Tokyo, the modern city that Edo eventually became, in kabuki stage performances. The front cover has a picture of a moon-viewing boat trip on the Sumida River, though today the passengers are more likely to be watching fireworks.