Given the boom in all things Edo in recent years — perhaps best exemplified by the explosion of interest in last year’s The Price Collection’s tour of Japan, featuring the artists Ito Jakuchu, Maruyama Okyo and Nagasawa Rosetsu — it is surprising that there hasn’t been equal attention paid to the sculpture of the period.

In fact, the scant interest reflects the conventional thinking that the Edo Period (1603-1867) had no sculpture worth mentioning; religious sculpture deteriorated from the mid 13th-century Kamakura Period and supposedly was not resuscitated until Japan encountered Western forms in the 19th century. Kyoto National Museum’s New Year exhibition, “An Old Man’s Mischief: Playful Works by the Buddhist Sculptor Shimizu Ryukei,” showing till March 30, provides the opportunity then to reevaluate what’s been considered a “minor” period of three-dimensional art.

The rise and fall of religious sculpture was precipitous. Early sculptural works by 11th-century Heian Period sculptor Jocho and the later “Kei” school of Nara had fixed iconographic precedents for subsequent generations of busshi (Buddhist sculptors), suppressing innovation. Later, the forms of Buddhism that gained popularity in the 13th century — the Zen and the Pure Land sects — by their very nature simply required less statuary. Sculpture was still being made, of course, but the art form mattered less.

What Edo sculpture inherited from the Kamakura Period, despite such a gap in time, was a heightened realism, which was used to give human qualities to deities and common folk alike. Hence, a sculptor such as Shimizu Ryukei I (1659- 1732), who made “Five Great Deities of Angry Visage” (1701) under the direction of the renowned head priest of Hozan-ji temple in Nara, Tankai, also crafted secular figurines. These treatments of anonymous or eminent personalities of both the day and history are the pieces on which the Kyoto exhibition concentrates.

Ryukei I, who also assumed the pseudonym Rinko, called such works “The mischief of an old man.” He had three followers who took up the style, though the exhibition is restricted to himself and Ryukei II (1729-1795), who went by the name Bishomontei.

Ryukei I’s pre-eminent work of miniature secularism is “Hundred Figures” (1717), in which dozens of statuettes only centimeters high are arranged on a tiered shelf, street-scene-like. The carefully carved figures show everyday scenes from all walks of life: a child pulls at his mother’s arm; an old woman stoops, crooked with age; two men argue; monks beg; samurai guard; and performers perform. The collection is impressive in its understated application of the skills of sacred tradition in portraying the quotidian, secular life.

One work, “Yuima Koji ” (18th century), was of significance for the sculptor. Yuima Koji, a wealthy Indian who sought solace in Buddhism, was regarded in China as a paragon of virtue. His popularity here stemmed from the balance he made between disengagement with worldly attachments and family responsibility, a trait highly valued in the country. Ryukei I himself tried to closely follow Koji’s example.

A more strikingly contemporary piece was Ryukei I’s “Skull” (1689). Marginally smaller than life size, it achieves a supreme realism and anatomical perfection. On close inspection, it becomes apparent that the surface is inscribed with kanji, indicating its use as a reference for acupuncture. As well, the lower jaw is linked to the upper by string, and therefore it is movable.

Among the portraits Ryukei I made of people of his day, “Portrait of Chiku-o” portrays a well-known Jorurui performer (a singer of narratives for Japanese puppetry) who lived in Osaka in the early Edo Period.

Ryukei II followed his predecessor’s lead with an emphasis on the small and unassuming, but he also carved historical figures of great stature, such as the legendary master of tea in “Portrait of Sen no Rikyu” (18th century). In “The priest Saigyo looking at Mount Fuji ” (18th century), the acclaimed poet leans on his staff, directing a small smile skyward.

The essential context of these Lilliputian works becomes apparent in comparison with an array of earlier, historically important sculptures in the exhibition such as the “Monju Bosatsu ” (13th century) from Konkaikomyo-ji temple in Kyoto. Monju — shown seated in a lotus saddle on a lion and clasping a sword symbolizing the dispersal of the clouds of ignorance — was regarded as the wisest of the bodhisattva; in person, the physical size of the deity dwarves both the works of Ryukei and visitors.

While these colorful little wood works will likely do nothing to overturn the conventional view of the decline in Japanese sculpture after the Kamakura Period, they do clear away some of the fogginess that has conventionally blanketed Edo Period works. And luckily, the shift to the depiction of the secular that they represent did not lead to a corresponding dullness in the art.

“An Old Man’s Mischief: Playful Works by the Buddhist Sculptor Shimizu Ryukei” is showing March 30 at the Kyoto National Museum; open 9:30 a.m.-6 p.m. (closed Mon.); admission ¥500. For more info call 075-541-1151 or visit www.kyohaku.go.jp

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