Edo Art Revealed: Ukiyoe in Boston

(this article first appeared in the october 23, 2006 issue of newsweek international)

Works Long Stored in Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Reach Tokyo

Though it happened a decade ago, Masato Naito vividly remembers the moment of discovery. He and fellow art scholars were studying old Japanese paintings in a research room at Boston's Museum of Fine Arts. Unfolding a piece of old fabric, they glimpsed a rare cotton banner bearing the portrait of Zhong Kui, the Demon Queller, the legendary Chinese figure believed to ward off evil. The piece was quickly confirmed to be the only existing banner handpainted by the renowned Edo artist Katsushika Hokusai. "We were so excited," recalls Naito, the chief curator of Tokyo's Idemitsu Museum of Arts. That wasn't the only surprise they found while studying more than 700 ukiyo-e paintings collected by a 19th-century Boston surgeon named William Bigelow, which had never been thoroughly examined before. "We didn't know of the existence of 90 percent of them," says Naito. "Those were the happiest days of my career."

After 10 years of research, conservation and planning, curators are finally bringing their find to Tokyo audiences. "The Allure of Edo: Ukiyoe-Painting From the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston," at the Edo-Tokyo Museum (Oct. 21-Dec. 10), includes some 80 gloriously colorful paintings of beautifully kimonoed courtesans, Kabuki actors and mythical animals. Bigelow, who lived and vigorously shopped for art in Japan in the 1880s, later donated tens of thousands of works―including the 700 original ukiyo-e paintings―to the MFA. Ukiyo-e, which means "a picture of the floating world," was popular during the Edo period (1603-1867) and primarily depicted mass entertainment and the lives of commoners. The paintings were originally created to capture the vitality of old Tokyo (called Edo), but many of them have never been seen there. (The exhibition made stops at museums in Kobe and Nagoya earlier this year, but the Tokyo show is the true homecoming.)

The exhibition is sure to wow the Japanese, who mostly think of ukiyo-e as small, mass-produced woodblock prints―like Hokusai's famous wave―rather than lush, large-format paintings. The paintings on view come in surprisingly diverse formats: screens, scrolls, banners, theatrical signs and even lanterns. Visitors will also see "how fine and luxurious the paintings are, with attention to small details," says Anne Nishimura Morse, the curator of Japanese art at the MFA. In Hokusai's gorgeous "Phoenix," for instance, the artist applied subtle gradations of color in each of hundreds of feathers of an imaginary bird, with its wings spread over eight large panels. Then he sprinkled the painting with gold. While woodblock prints are bold and graphic, these paintings are painstakingly elaborate. And obviously not cheap; the inexpensive ukiyo-e prints were intended for townspeople, but these decorative, expansive paintings were generally commissioned by wealthy merchants, samurai families and even members of the imperial family.

"The Allure of Edo" is the product of a huge collaboration between the MFA and Japanese experts that goes back even farther than the 1996-97 study. When Nishimura Morse first took over the MFA's Japanese art in 1991, she decided to make those thousands of works more accessible. With the help of top Japanese experts, she conducted an extensive survey of the museum's Japanese paintings, sculptures and textiles. "We knew what we had, but we didn't have the kind of contextualized information the Japanese colleagues could give us," she says. One of the most significant works they examined was Suzuki Harunobu's "Picking Herbs on the Banks of the Sumida River" (1764-72), a masterpiece showing five women and a boy enjoying a leisurely spring day. "Their ability to say 'This is one of only a few Harunobu originals' was really critical," she says. Similarly, Japanese art historian Shugo Asano determined that a theater signboard in the collection depicting scenes from the play "Nishikigi Sakae Komachi" was made in 1758―much earlier than the one in Tokyo believed to be the oldest surviving theater board. "All of a sudden the painting gains another dimension," says Nishimura Morse.

After Tokyo, the paintings will head back to North America, stopping at Kimbell Art Museum in Ft. Worth, Texas, and the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, before finally returning to the MFA in August 2007. But that may not be the end of the story. The Bigelow bequest is so big and comprehensive, says Naito, that "there can easily be another exhibition of equally high quality out of the collection." The Japanese should brace themselves for even more discoveries to come.

(c) 2006 newsweek, inc.

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