The art of Edo: frozen in time
by Robert Fulford

(Globe and Mail, January 9, 1999)

Great art movements may seem inevitable in retrospect, but it usually turns out they depended on quirks of history. The grotesquely imaginative political system that created national unity in 17th-century Japan had the side effect of stimulating one of the richest of all art periods. This is the story that animates Edo: Art in Japan, 1615-1868 (Yale University Press, 480 pages, $150), a dazzling book edited by Robert T. Singer and based on the current exhibition at the National Gallery in Washington.

Tokugawa Ieyasu, when inventing the first secure national government of Japan, couldn't have known he was preparing the ground for a flowering of the arts. He wanted only power and peace, on his terms. After generations of murderous civil wars (the terror-ridden period depicted in samurai movies), he subdued the daimyo, his fractious fellow warlords. He made his own castle town, Edo, the national capital, and from there dictated a peace that lasted 253 years, under 15 shoguns.

The shoguns allowed regional lords to control their own districts but required them to live every second year in Edo, and to leave their families behind as hostages when they went home. If this produced stability through intimidation, it also created an art of intense display. Every year, about 260 regional lords travelled to or from Edo, each accompanied by as many as 4,000 soldiers and servants. The costumes of the followers, particularly the soldiers, reflected the lord's status, and some of the most striking pages in Edo: Art in Japan show what samurai wore in processions, including one gorgeous helmet in the shape of a gigantic butterfly.

The system of alternate-year attendance also created an art metropolis. It made Edo the biggest city in the world, with a population of one million by 1720, and focused the energy of artists and craftsmen. The back-and-forth travels of the lords became a means of national communication: Each trip spread cultural news, the way art and fashion magazines do in the 20th century. The paintings, garments, prints and art objects of the Edo period reached levels of excellence seldom approached elsewhere. Exported to Europe in the 19th century, art from Edo profoundly influenced Degas, Van Gogh, Monet, Whistler and many others.

As you turn these pages, time sometimes feels frozen: Only a learned eye can tell the difference between a 17th- and an 18th-century scroll. That wasn't an accident. The shoguns, lacking any belief in progress, wanted stillness and isolation. They banned foreign travel, most foreign trade, most foreign visitors, all Christian missionaries. Japan reached a level of isolation that the 20th-century Soviet empire aspired to but never attained.

Through neighbourhood surveillance, the shoguns regulated political, personal and economic life. As a safety valve they licensed prostitution in certain neighbourhoods, including Yoshiwara in Edo. In Tales of the Floating World,17th-century novelist Asai Ryoi described this milieu as a dream of perfumed indolence, a place where people live only for each moment, "floating, floating . . . like a gourd floating along with the river current," ignoring "the pauperism staring us in the face" while observing the cycles of the moon and the sight of cherry blossoms. The atmosphere in these pleasure ghettos attracted artists and writers, who began to idealize geishas, courtesans and ordinary prostitutes in stories and art. No sex trade in history has been paid more impressive tributes.

Edo: Art in Japan, 1615-1868 reproduces some 300 objects, from elegant Zen calligraphy to the florid woodblock prints of the artists who helped inspire Impressionism, including Hiroshige, Hokusai and Utamaro. The text by Singer and nine other scholars carefully explains subjects, traditions and influences -- and almost entirely without jargon. The design, placing the words close to the relevant pictures, is as good as the writing and the reproduction. Edo: Art in Japan reinforces Yale's reputation as one of the great contemporary publishers.

People who know a little about modern Japan will find much of the content pleasantly familiar. The imagery of Edo still dominates Japanese design, and the celebrations shown here aren't radically different from modern rituals. The book shows a recently discovered 17th-century screen in which citizens carry portable shrines through the streets of Edo on a festival day, as they still do in Tokyo now.

Japan's seclusion ended in 1853, when Commodore Matthew Perry's four black ships sailed into the port of Edo, demanded trade rights for the United States and exposed the weakness of the old system. By 1868, Emperor Meiji was leading Japan into modernity. Soon Edo became Tokyo, and the art of the shogun era became a memory the world has cherished ever since.

Click here to see an Edo reproduction from the book's cover.

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