Arts art exhibit review

Painting a clearer picture of Japanese culture

Harvard Art Museums present a wide selection of Japanese paintings donated by the Feinbergs

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‘Painting Edo,’ on display at the Harvard Art Museums until July 26, showcases a variety of Japanese art from the Feinberg collection.

Painting Edo: Japanese Art from the Feinberg Collection
Curated by Rachel Saunders and Yukio Lippit
Harvard Art Museums
On display until July 26

Some people give gift cards as presents. Some give flowers. The Feinbergs, on the other hand, give an entire exhibition’s worth of Japanese art. Harvard’s latest and biggest art exhibition consists of more than 100 paintings from the couple’s collection, all of which are from Japan’s Edo period spanning the 17th to 19th centuries. Edo refers not only to this prosperous time but also to the contemporary center of Japanese culture, now known as Tokyo.

With the amount of thought that went into the design of the gallery space, it is as much a work of art as any of the paintings inside. Members of the team in charge took the long journey to Japan to better understand how to present the pieces in a culturally sensitive way. A lot of Japanese art is used privately, in domestic environments or temples — quite a big leap from the large-scale and formal atmosphere of public museums in the U.S. From the colors of the walls to the specially non-reflective glass, subtle decisions in the presentation attempt to lessen the contextual shock. The paintings are organized by themes or lineages, fanning out from the central room which acts as an introductory point. The display is more than the works inside; it is a whole new environment.

I was not surprised that this is the largest exhibit the Harvard Art Museums have ever featured. There were rows and rows of scrolls, dozens of fans, and seemingly endless rooms to wander into. And though the size of the collection was a little overwhelming, at no point did I feel that it was repetitive. Every piece was technically a painting, but that includes both screens and sliding doors. In addition, the works drew from so many different schools of Edo painting with vastly different styles that I felt I was entering a completely new exhibit every time I walked into another room.

Not much of an expert in Japanese culture, I attended the opening celebration for the show, which featured an insightful lecture by art history professor Timon Screech. The lecture offered both an analysis of select works and some of the rich context needed to better understand the pieces. Screech commented on the characteristics of the various Edo schools of painting, of which there were so many that my head spun. He described some of the strict customs that dictated the way art was made, including the so-called “self-portraits” of powerful officials as a work-around for the rule that artists were not of high enough status to look at them. He also spoke of some of the major events that influenced the artworks of the time, such as devastating fires in the city and the arrival of Europeans. What most surprised me was the prevalence of double meanings in Japanese, which often manifest themselves as symbols in the visual arts. The same word in Japanese means “government,” “pine,” and “correct,” so painters would include the trees in their landscapes in support of the government, hoping it would last eternally the same way pines are evergreen. Other common symbols arose from the conventions of the time, such as long sleeves for unmarried women. Every image is overflowing with information; it just takes some background to be able to read it all. 

Even without the lecture, Painting Edo is as much a history lesson as it is an art exhibit. The breadth of works makes it possible to compare stylistic differences across time, space, and lineage. The layout of the gallery makes it easy to discover the unique characteristics of each painting school. Just by looking at the paintings, I could see a little of what life may have been like, what clothes people wore, or what traditions were important to them. At the same time, by paying attention to the date of each piece, it’s possible to get a sense of the fluctuations in harmony and prosperity during the period based on the number and quality of the works. Of course, the most historical information comes from the many paintings depicting major contemporary events or government-related scenes. Although it was all interesting, I was not quite prepared for the amount of brainpower that viewing this exhibit would require.

Luckily, the exhibit’s visual appeal is as impressive as its historical value, so I could take a break to appreciate the aesthetics. Easily the most interesting aspect of the works in Painting Edo is the sheer difference between them and most of the art I experience. Scrolls compressed images to unusually long, narrow aspect ratios, while fans completely transformed the rectangular image into a curved one. Screens added a three-dimensional element, requiring viewers to walk around the piece to see every section and read it like a timeline. Silk gave the artworks a unique texture and transparency. In contrast to Western art, most images had no horizon lines, sometimes causing figures to be suspended in space with no sense of distance and other times creating a dreamy mood. Such a wide range of styles essentially guaranteed that everyone could find a piece that’s perfect for them. There were extravagant artworks with large swaths of gold. Painstakingly careful brushstrokes made up sophisticated paintings of historical events, not a single line out of place. Others were deliberately raw with dynamic, sweeping curves. The minimalist in me was drawn to whimsical scroll paintings of the moon that left unpainted areas to the imagination. Delicate renditions of flora and fauna were done with near scientific accuracy. My personal favorites were the breathtaking landscapes of grand yet poetic mountainsides. Some were monochrome, placing focus on the formal lines of the picture, while others used colors so bright that it was hard to look away. The paintings had an unbelievable amount of detail; I felt I could spend hours with my face practically pressed against the glass case of one scroll and still never find every tiny figure.

There’s something about looking at art from such a vastly different time and place that feels extremely valuable. The historical significance of the pieces is hard to deny — they both reflect and create the culture of the Edo period. They are a production of their times, and yet the very fact that they were made and used impacted the Japanese people. Viewed in modern times, the paintings also become a way for people to understand the mindsets of people across cultural boundaries. The idyllic landscapes become a form of escapism, as a means of communicating the way the artist wished the world could be. Contemplating the Japanese artists’ portrayal of Westerners — which makes them appear exotic even to Americans — gives us a different lens through which to view our own society and the way that cultures collide. The works in Painting Edo allow viewers to experience seeing differently and thereby question their own societal norms, aesthetics, and values. This exhibition is a perfect opportunity to grow your cultural understanding.

Painting Edo is on display for the rest of the semester and is free for students. There are also a number of free events planned for the future, including ongoing talks and tours, a public symposium March 19, and a lecture by Rachel Saunders on May 26. The museums will also host activities to bring the cultural traditions depicted to life, from fan-making to tea ceremonies. Whether it’s for the events, the history, the beauty, or the culture, I highly recommend making the trek across Cambridge to visit the Feinberg’s impressive collection.