- The Washington Times - Friday, January 6, 2006

Edo, now modern Tokyo, boomed for the first time in the Tokugawa period’s 1800s. With one million-plus-occupants, the city exploded as it became one of the world’s largest, most powerful, metropolises. Tokugawa Ieyasu (1543-1616), Japan’s ruthless shogun-ruler, had killed off his rivals by 1600 and proceeded to build a structured, centralized feudal society. “Divide and conquer” was his motto: He required daimyo regional warlords to live alternate years in Edo, a strategically located castle town, and to leave behind wives and families as hostages.

Moreover, he sequestered the emperor — a figurehead — in Kyoto, the capital since 794; outlawed Christianity; and limited “foreign barbarian” trade to the port of Nagasaki.

The arts also burgeoned, with painters of the Freer Gallery of Art’s “Artists of Edo: 1800-1850” — among others — vying for commissions from the newly rich merchants and daimyo who came with retinues of samurai warriors.

The challenging and intriguing exhibit is no competitor for the National Gallery of Arts’ all-encompassing 1998 “Edo: Art in Japan 1615-1868,” but does focus on an interesting period of Japanese art. Missing in “Artists of Edo” are the luxuriant robes, gleaming lacquers and generous ceramics of the earlier show. Exhibit curator Ann Yonemura, however, wisely opens with a stylized Mount Fuji-decorated, raku-fired rounded tea bowl.

With 2 centuries of peace, the new, urban society spawned revolutionary, innovative arts and crafts. Despite the country’s isolation from the rest of the world, Japanese artists reveled in European and Chinese models, and artistic influences traveled both ways.

French impressionists like Eugene Manet and Claude Monet literally gobbled up Japanese asymmetric compositional approaches, stylized faces and postures, nature-oriented subjects and bold, knock-‘em-dead designs.

An artist such as Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849), the first internationally prominent Japanese artist, met the nouveau riche merchants’ sudden demands by training students and followers similar to those of Michelangelo in 15th-century Florence, Italy. Freer Gallery of Art founder Charles Lang Freer was entranced with Hokusai’s paintings, prints and drawings and those of his students, as well.

In fact, Mr. Freer hand-picked these paintings by Utagawa Toyoharu, Hishikawa Sori, Gakutei, Katsushika Taito II, Hokuba, Watanabe Gentain, Tani Buncho and Katsushika Hokukon, among many others.

But visitors be warned: “Artists of Edo: 1800-1850” is primarily a windup for the Freer’s spring blockbuster “Hokusai,” opening March 4.

The opening room comprises the show’s best offerings by concentrating on works by two artists, those of Toyoharu and Sori. Toyoharu’s “Winter Party” (hanging scroll mounted on panel, with ink and colors on silk) show the geishas and samurai having more fun than the average Washingtonian.

At left, a courtesan — a high-class prostitute-entertainer — tunes her samisen-type lute before an enchanting, snowy scene, while a colleague sips wine from a lover’s red cup. Hokusai specialized in “ukiyo-e” or “floating world” scenes — “floating world” is translated as life’s transient nature, especially in Edo’s pleasure quarters — with Toyoharu following closely.

Sori, a Hokusai student also, varies styles and subjects as seen here with his “Six Immortal Poets,” a classical upper-class Japanese story, that exhibit curator Miss Yonemura contrasts with the lower-class, freely brushed “Fisherman Hakuro and Mount Fuji.”

Sori’s “Courtesan Beside a Kimono Stand” is among “the floating world’s” best. Her exaggerated, curved pose dramatically flickers off the nearby stand’s vertical-and-horizontal thrusts, while the robe’s blossoming plum tree patterns jump across the silk.

There’s much more in the second gallery that shows the stylistic variety practiced by these artists and their love of nature. Poet-painter-prints designer Gakutei offers a heavily brushed “Two Courtesans Reading” with snow falling behind — showing a favorite Japanese subject, the passing-of-the-seasons.

Chinese painting models were also popular. Hokukon’s “Chinese Warriors Approaching a Gate” show him working in Hokusai’s early style and was commissioned by a private patron for the new year. Buncho’s Chinese-landscape-like “Peach Blossom Spring” is a dead ringer for classic Chinese nature-scapes that represented the height of Chinese landscape painting.

So while you wait for the big “Hokusai” show, “Artists of Edo” is a good warm-up.

WHAT: “Artists of Edo: 1800-1850”

WHERE: Smithsonian Freer Gallery of Art, 12th Street and Independence Avenue SW

WHEN: 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. daily, through May 29

TICKETS: Free

PHONE: 202/633-1000

ONLINE: www.asia.si.edu

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