Most of us understand bridges to be structures that help us keep our feet dry. However, in the latest exhibition at the Mitsui Memorial Museum, “The Bridge in Japanese Art: From Ama-no-Hashidate to Nihonbashi,” it turns out that we’ve only been partly right. The bridge is also a device to help us see Japanese art better.
You might think that the clue is in the name of certain bridges. For example, because of its twin arches reflected in the placid waters below, the bridge at the main entrance of the Imperial Palace is called Megane Bashi, literally “Eyeglasses Bridge.”
But that only looks like a large pair of glasses. What this exhibition is trying to do is use the concept of the bridge as a way of seeing and making sense of a diverse body of art spanning hundreds of years. The show includes rough-looking tea bowls, vivid ukiyo-e prints, gorgeous folding screens emblazoned with gold leaf, and luscious lacquered boxes, among other items.
It is this variety of media — along with other variations, such as period, style, and subject matter — that can sometimes make any wide-ranging exhibition of traditional Japanese art somewhat overwhelming. Faced with examples of calligraphy, faded Buddhist scroll paintings, vivid shin hanga (new prints from the Taisho/Showa era 1926-89) and ink-and-wash paintings of nature scenes, we might not really know where to turn, with the result that we lose focus and become passive consumers of random images rather than actively engaging with the art.
By introducing the recurring motif of bridges, this exhibition hopes to obviate these dangers and give us a constant point of reference for comparison. Think of it like the thread that Ariadne gave to Theseus in the Greek myth of the Minotaur to guide him through the labyrinth. This gives a unity to what would otherwise be a confusing mass of charming objects.
It also adds resonance to the venue, which is located close to Japan’s most famous bridge, Nihonbashi (Japan Bridge). This was originally a wooden structure built in Edo Period (1603-1867), famously used as the point from which to measure all distances in the country. The present bridge — an ornate, twin-arched stone structure surmounted by a beautiful bronze statue of a dragon — was built exactly 100 years ago.
Although dragons are often conceptualized as fire-breathing monsters, in Japan they are more often seen as deities associated with particular bodies of water. Nihonbashi’s dragon, it seems, has ancient roots.
Some of this can be traced in “Tawara-no-Tota,” an illustrated book from the 17th or 18th century. This shows Tawara-no-Tota Hidesato, a legendary warrior, defending a bridge against a rampaging dragon that is perhaps symbolic of the often wild power that Japanese rivers can unleash after a heavy rainstorm.
Because of the way in which they link two separate areas, bridges have become symbols of the transition between two different worlds. This can be seen in the case of Ama-no-Hashidate, a pine-tree-covered sandbar that serves as a natural bridge across Miyazu Bay in northern Kyoto Prefecture. This is considered one of Japan’s “big three” scenic sights, along with the pine-clad islands of Matsushima in Miyagi Prefecture and the sea-washed tori gate of Itsukushima Shrine in Hatsukaichi, Hiroshima Prefecture. But because of its great beauty, Ama-no-Hashidate is also regarded as a kind of heavenly bridge. It is typically viewed by pilgrims bent upside down looking through their legs.
Impressive scenery has always provided inspiration for artists. At this exhibition we can compare Sesshu Toyo’s detailed yet highly stylized ink-and-wash view of Ama-no-Hashidate (15th century) with Masataka Shimada’s soft-focus realist treatment of the same scene (19th century). Although stylistically very different, both artists infuse their works with some of the scene’s mystical magic, creating art that transcends mere depiction.
A scene like this would also be a reason to travel, which in the Edo Period meant crossing many other fascinating bridges. One suspects that, rather than noting milestones, the travelers in those days measured progress by the bridges they crossed. Katsushika Hokusai’s series “Famous bridges in various provinces” (19th century) captures this feeling, with his diminutive figures slowly wending their way over a variety of picturesque and memorable bridges.
Just as they helped the travelers, so the bridges help us to navigate and cross the stylistic gaps in this diverse show.
“The Bridge in Japanese Art: From Ama-no-Hashidate to Nihonbashi” at the Mitsui Memorial Museum runs till Sept. 4; admission ¥1,000; open 10 a.m.-5 p.m., closed Mon. For more information, visit www.mitsui-museum.jp.