The pulse nearly throbs at the plump neck of the peacock in Maruyama Okyo’s “Peacock and Peonies” in “Painting Edo: Japanese Art From the Feinberg Collection” at Harvard Art Museums. As of press time, the building remained open to the public.
As the bird turns its head, Okyo captures the twist of the neck as if he has held a peacock’s spine in his hands. He painted it in 1768, at a time when Japanese artists were fascinated with natural history. A familiarity with Western art shows up in the artist’s subtle attention to space and volume, but in many ways it’s traditional. Peacocks and peonies, a favorite motif in Japanese painting, denote wealth and power.
“Peacock and Peonies” is just a sliver of the robust aesthetics on view in “Painting Edo.” Alongside the allegorical nature paintings, you’ll find demure, daintily eroticized beauties of the Floating World, which was Edo’s pleasure district, and court paintings. There are mountainous landscapes by scholar painters known as literati, riotous adventure narratives, and serene decorative paintings.
They reveal tradition, societal power structures, and the evolution of artistic styles. In Edo painting, lyricism is not merely a pleasing aesthetic. It’s the expression of a way of life, a set of values very different from ours that favors the delicacy and keenness of artistic sensibility.
The exhibition opens with Tani Buncho’s “Grasses and Moon,” in which the giant moon, bare of ink, hangs in the sky over soft, saturated passages of haze. Reeds in the foreground set us at the water’s edge; they clamber delicately up to the moon.
The painting was made as part of a harvest moon tradition. People would gather for lunar parties, conscious that others elsewhere were savoring the same moon. They’d sip wine, compose poems, and paint. “Grasses and Moon,” which would have been exhibited around the same time each year, celebrates that fellowship and poetic temperament. It’s eternal.
At the same time, it captures a moment in a swirl of evolving styles. Traditional brushwork and nuanced application of ink imply space. But the scroll, at more than 5 feet across, is big, and horizontal rather than the traditional vertical. The immediacy of perspective suggests familiarity with European prints.
“Painting Edo” is the largest exhibition mounted since the Harvard museums consolidated in their new building in 2014. It features more than 120 works from the collection of Robert S. and Betsy G. Feinberg, who have promised their trove to Harvard. The exhibition is organized by Rachel Saunders, curator of Asian art, and Yukio Lippit, a professor of history of art and architecture.
Edo, located in present-day Tokyo, prospered between 1615 and 1868. Before that, the government, based in the imperial city of Kyoto, had overseen a system of warlike feudal domains. When the military dictatorship of the Edo-based Shogun took over, a time of peace and economic development fostered an artistic renaissance.
Lippit and Saunders trace several artistic lineages that thrived under the Shogunate.
The style known as Rinpa or School of Korin tended toward decorative designs and metallic finishes. A late acolyte, Suzuki Kiitsu, broke from traditional schematics to paint “Cranes” using the birds’ long lines to invite the eye to slide and loop across the golden field of the painting.
The motif is traditional; the layout fresh. It’s decidedly modern, and the type of work that sparked a fever of Japonisme in European painters in the late 19th century.
The literati painters, who liked to think of themselves as amateurs, had a deliberately rougher style than their Rinpa counterparts. Uragami Gyokudo used the side of his brush to make bold, percussive strokes that produced humming landscapes such as “Old Trees in Lonely Springtime.” He may have painted while inebriated, and indeed gloried in it. His traditional stamped signatures read “Drunken Immortal,” “Drunkenville,” and “Drunkenly painted by Gyokudo.” Tippling was part of the literati ethos of nonconformity and retreat from rigid societal strictures. They were the beatniks of their day.
Twentieth-century art historians labeled a group of Edo painters “eccentrics.” In Freud’s wake, they applied psychobiography to the group. Saunders and Lippit back away from that thinking, noting that the Edo period had its own concept of eccentricity. The wry, wise, and vital paintings by this group are magnetic.
Ikeno Taiga’s pair of screens “The Poet Su Shi” and “Meng Jia Loses His Hat” rhyme two Chinese stories. Wind blows the hat from the head of one renowned scholar. The other, caught in the rain, borrows a hat and shoes from a farmer. Both men break the dress code. The moral here is that refined men know it’s OK to disregard rules.
Taiga’s painting, with its swift lines and scattered ink drops, looks spontaneous, but it’s too carefully composed for that. You can see the artist’s skill in the extraordinary kindness on Su Shi’s face — he’s the grandpa you want in your corner.
Soga Shohaku, meanwhile, excelled in wild, grotesque, and supernatural stories. Warriors race to cross the water in “Race at Uji River,” a scene from a 14th-century ballad. The elaborately costumed soldiers have exaggerated, kabuki-like faces; the horses are monstrous, eyes bulging and teeth bared. This type of antic, graphic scene presages a Japanese pop art thread that includes contemporary behemoth Takashi Murakami and manga cartoons.
“Painting Edo” has such dizzying breadth, its depth is particularly notable. Despite the serenity of the works (except Shohaku’s gasp-inducing dramas), they embody an arresting presence of moment that feels almost urgent. Go see it, and be still.
PAINTING EDO: Japanese Art From the Feinberg Collection
Harvard Art Museums are closed until further notice. For updates, visit www.harvardartmuseums.org