The allure of the Japanese folding screens of the Edo Period (1603-1867) lies in their elegance, their dazzling schemes of silver and gold, and the painstaking detail of their form and decoration. A wonderful opportunity to appreciate such pieces is the exhibition “Paintings of the Edo Period,” now showing at the Seikado Bunko Museum. On display are 39 works, dating from 1603 to 1867, including folding screens, hanging scrolls and illustrated scrolls.

More than just ornate artworks, however, these pieces speak vividly of the time and place of their creation and are valuable historical documents.

The Edo Period began when Tokugawa Ieyasu, who unified Japan, transferred the capital from Kyoto to Edo (Tokyo). Kyoto had been not only the political but also the artistic capital of Japan during the Muromachi Period (1392-1603), and members of the Imperial court, the samurai class and wealthy merchants maintained the artistic vitality of the city by patronizing the arts. But while the art commissioned by the court and by samurai lords tended to represent such lofty subject matter as landscapes, the merchant class preferred urban art that showcased the prosperity of the city and the festivities of its entertainment quarters.

One of the highlights showing at the Seikado is a pair of golden screens portraying festivities held at the Kamogawa River in the Shijo area of Kyoto. Titled “Amusements at the Shijo Riverside” and believed to date to the early 1600s, these panels offer detailed depictions of Shijo, which evolved during this period into a large entertainment district hosting kabuki theaters, noh theaters and numerous side shows and curiosities.

“Amusements at the Shijo Riverside” is an example of fuzoku-ga (genre painting), which serves as a valuable document on the social practices of the period, particularly the pursuits of commoners. Such genre paintings were typically created by anonymous “town painters” (machie-shi) who did not belong to established schools of painting. They did not sign their paintings, typically directing collective endeavors with the help of assistants in their ateliers. The festive atmosphere of the entertainment quarters was a favored subject for such paintings and commissioned by wealthy merchants for private viewing.

Viewers of “Amusements at the Shijo Riverside” would have been held fascinated for hours by the level of detail in its folding panels. Showing hundreds of Kyotoites, spanning all ages, occupations and social classes, it perfectly captures the bustle of urban life.

Most interesting is its depiction of a kabuki performance given by courtesan-actresses (yujo-kabuki) on stages erected in temporary theaters on the banks of the Kamogawa River. First devised as a form of entertainment by the temple maiden Okuni in 1603, kabuki shows enacted by courtesans became wildly popular in Kyoto.

In the upper-left portion of the left panel, 13 actresses are dancing in a circle, carrying long swords and wearing kimono decorated with a black-and-gold checker pattern. In the center, a star performer is seated on a chair covered with a tiger skin. Perched on her throne, she deftly plays the shamisen, holding the audience spellbound. With their lacquered wooden lunchboxes scattered about them, the prosperous townsmen and women eat delicacies, drink sake and enjoy the unfolding drama.

The courtesan kabuki actresses are all dressed in men’s clothing and wear male hairdos, their quixotic beauty daringly defying gender boundaries. Indeed, in 1629, afraid of the subversive influence of this transvestite kabuki and disapproving of the licentious behavior and the sexual liaisons conducted between performers and their admirers, the government banned kabuki performances by female troupes.

In contrast to the urban scenes of genre paintings, the aristocracy preferred more rarefied art and the discerning would commission strikingly creative pieces. “Waves,” a silver-colored pair of six-panel screen paintings by Sakai Hoitsu (1761-1828), is one such masterpiece now on show. The understated elegance of this painting emulated the style of renowned artists under the employ of powerful samurai lords.

“Waves” is painted in ink on a silver-leaf background, and portrays large waves reflected in the moonlight. The power of the waves is conveyed by the dynamic calligraphic lines, and the rising, billowing waves seem to push their way into the composition from both the right and left sides of the screen. Spray rising from the waves is dramatically rendered with white gofun pigment derived from powdered seashells.

Hoitsu was born in Edo into the household of a noble clan and studied the works of master Rimpa painter Ogata Korin (1658-1716). A letter written by the artist indicates that he created “Waves” on the 100th anniversary of Korin’s death as a memorial to the great master. However, whereas Korin painted waves in ink on a brilliant gold background, Hoitsu, the restrained Edoite, preferred to render his waves on an ethereal silver-colored background. “Waves” expresses Hoitsu’s profound psychological refinement, and the viewer can almost hear the sound of the crashing waves.

These are just two highlights, but this exhibition admirably spans the entire history of Japanese painting from the early 17th century to the 19th century. Ten of the pieces on display are national treasures or important cultural properties that are rarely shown in public. Taken all together, these exhibits show how masters of major artistic schools and unknown artists alike depicted the natural scenery and urban settings that came to represent the world of the Edo Period.

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