“Focus on the collections”

Amidst the ongoing pandemic, it is important to indulge budding interests and longstanding passions, whether by exploring the arts or feeding some other curiosity—in other words, to remain actively engaged in the world while maintaining safe social distancing. In this spirit, the Japan Society hosted an online talk by Dr. Rachel Saunders entitled “Painting Edo: Early Modern Masterworks from the Feinberg Collection. Dr Saunders, who earned her PhD from Harvard University in 2015, is the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Curator of Asian Art at the Harvard Art Museums, as well as a specialist in medieval narrative and sacred painting.

President and CEO of the Japan Society, Joshua Walker, expressed gratitude for past and present support: “Given that this talk focuses on artwork from the collection of Robert and Betsy Feinberg, here at Japan Society, we’ve also had the privilege of displaying these pieces from the Feinberg’s outstanding collection at some of our past exhibits. There’s a lot of strands of connection tonight and makes us feel like we have that kizuna, our deep connection/bond of family.”

Delighted with the turnout, Peter Kelley, President of the National Association of Japan-American Societies, offered a few words about the Richard J. Wood Art Curator Series, which began in 2015: “The idea was to highlight the importance of art in the US-Japan relationship, beginning in the 19th century and continuing to present day. We do that by inviting curators of collections of Japanese art in American museums to speak in cities apart from their home museums, to talk about the art collections and also about the collectors.” He described Richard J. Wood as an art lover with many connections to collectors: “It was he who said focus on the collections.”

Maruyama Ōkyo, Peacock and Peonies, Japanese, Edo period, 1768. Hanging scroll; ink, color, and gold on silk. Harvard Art Museums, Promised gift of Robert S. and Betsy G. Feinberg, TL42147.17. Image: John Tsantes and Neil Greentree; © Robert Feinberg.

“The same moon in the same sky on the same evening”

Painting Edo is the largest art exhibit in the history of the Harvard Art Museums and represents a watershed moment, with the sharing of an astonishing collection of early modern Japanese art. The works are drawn exclusively from the collection of Robert and Betsy Feinberg, who in their 50 years of collecting always made a point to welcome scholars and students from around the world to study their collection.

The exhibit of 120 works of art from Japan’s early modern Edo period (1615-1868), named for the new shogunate capital Edo, known today as Tokyo, offers the viewer a unique and immersive experience. While the museums are sadly closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the collection may be enjoyed online at the Harvard Art Museums’ webpage, including a number of virtual guided tours.

Dr. Saunders asks, “How was it that in the Edo Period, which was itself so scarred by multiple epidemics, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, famines, and poor governance, that such an enormous wealth of beautiful paintings was produced. And what do they have to say to us today, in this moment, in 21st century North America.”

Providing us with a guided tour of the various sections of the exhibit, Dr. Saunders’ descriptions serve as a bridge linking us to the scenes depicted in the striking art, beginning with that of a harvest moon viewing party that took place on the banks of Edo’s Sumida River on August 15, 1817. Entitled “Grasses and Moon,” the magnificent painting by Tani Bunchō is deceptively simple: we see only the moon, a patch of reeds, and the painter’s oversized seal.

Even though there are no figures depicted, Dr. Saunders shines light on the veiled complexity: “The radical proximity of the river reeds, which are rising right out of the very front of the picture plane, one of which is high enough to just caress the bottom edge of the moon, conveys a powerful sense of fairness. There are no figures painted here; rather, the vantage point conveys the essence of the experience of being at this gathering and places you, the viewer, on the riverbank gazing up at the moon.”

The viewing of the harvest moon amongst friends represents “the idea that no matter how far we may be separated from those dear to us, distance alone cannot prevent us all from viewing the same moon in the same sky on the same evening.”

Tani Bunchō, Grasses and Moon, Japanese, Edo period, 1817. Hanging scroll; ink on silk. Harvard Art Museums, Promised gift of Robert S. and Betsy G. Feinberg, TL42147.38. Image: John Tsantes and Neil Greentree; © Robert Feinberg.

“New urban fantasy worlds”

The paintings displayed in the “Floating Worlds” section of the exhibit demonstrate “paintings of the new urban fantasy worlds that grew up as spaces for leisure and released within the city, namely the licensed pleasure quarters, which were effectively cities within cities where theaters, restaurants, and bordellos were located. And it was here in these so-called floating worlds that class restrictions could be temporarily restricted. Their celebrities were pictured as elegantly dressed fashion leaders painted against blank backgrounds that invite the viewer to supply the missing narrative: the who and the why and the where.”

For example, in “Seated Beauty” by Kitagawa Utamaro, we are beholden by the mystery of a woman draped in beautiful cascading robes, leaning casually against lacquer boxes. With pen and paper in hand, she seems pensive, perhaps wondering what to write. The poem drifting above her reads, “Thinking of you, compelled to compose a verse under the lamplight riding through the night of our lost years.”

Is the poem her response to a lost love? Dr. Saunders explains that the poem, “is playing with the trope of the absent lover, who’s usually a scholar or official who’s been posted to some distant region. But in fact, we can see that this beauty isn’t quite alone. If we look carefully you can see that there’s an enormous carp just here swimming in the lively waters of her outermost robe, looking up at her with these golden eyes.”

Kitagawa Utamaro, Seated Beauty, Japanese, Edo period, c. 1800–02. Hanging scroll; ink, color, and gold on silk. Harvard Art Museums, Promised gift of Robert S. and Betsy G. Feinberg, TL42147.16. Image: Natalja Kent; © President and Fellows of Harvard College.

“A narrative of eccentricity”

Leaving mysterious beauty behind, we are then taken on a journey to the year 1769, to the Uji River. This “Eccentricity” category of the Painting Edo exhibit features painters who were “considered to be brilliantly eccentric or strange in the true Edo period sense of the word, or “ki,” as well as powerful works by painters who were dubbed eccentric by 20th century scholars.”

The “Race at Uji River” by Soga Shōhaku tells the story of two warriors from the 14th century war epic “The Tale of Heike” who compete to see who will be the first to cross the River Uji “after enemy Minamoto warriors have abandoned their position and wrecked the bridge on their way out.” The warrior in green, Takatsuna, tricks the warrior in red, Kagasue, “by telling him that his horse’s girth strap appears to be loose, whereupon Kagasue looks down to check and Takatsuna overtakes him.”

The untrained eye may wonder what element of the painting is eccentric. Dr. Saunders explains that “the grotesque musculature and fangs of the horses and the mask-like faces of the warriors, the wild waveforms and the really extreme use of color all feed very easily into a narrative of eccentricity in which eccentricity is understood as a personal psychological state as we in the 21st century understand it.”

Soga Shōhaku, Race at Uji River, Japanese, Edo period, c. 1764. Six-panel folding screen; ink, color, and gold on paper. Harvard Art Museums, Promised gift of Robert S. and Betsy G. Feinberg, TL42147.30. Image: John Tsantes and Neil Greentree; © Robert Feinberg.

Even though these stunning works are observed from afar, Dr. Saunders, with her engaging commentary, draws the viewer in for an enchanting experience, in which we delve into the symbolism of the curvature of reeds caressing the moon or develop a keen eye to identify a carp hiding in the folds of a luxurious robe, leaving us inspired to learn more about the world of Edo painting.

A full recording of the webinar is available on the Japan Society of New York’s YouTube channel.

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