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Edo-period art at the Tokyo Fuji Art Museum

From the ukiyo-e prints popular culture to the armour of the Shogun, this exhibition delves into the many strands of Edo period art and culture

The Edo period (1615-1868) corresponds to Japan’s long isolation from the outside world, when the country was ruled by the Tokugawa shoguns from Edo (now Tokyo) while the Emperor remained a powerless figurehead in Kyoto.

It was a period of peace and stability, and of a flamboyant blossoming of the arts. The old feudal system of patronage of craftsmen continued, with the Emperor and Daimyo (domain lords) positively encouraged by the shogunate to devote themselves to culture. At the same time, a vibrant urban culture developed among the newly rich merchants in Edo, which by the beginning of the eighteenth century was the largest city in the world with over a million inhabitants.

This exhibition reflects the dual nature of the period. It is organised by the Tokyo Fuji Museum, and the 100 pieces in the show are all drawn from its own collection, built up over the last thirty years. The selection was led by the museum’s chief curator, Mitsunari Noguchi.

The exhibition is strongest on screen paintings and armour. An early Edo screen attributed to Sôtatsu Tawaraya has waves leaping across the gold ground, the spume turning into dragons’ heads or greedy fingerlets. Two Kanô school screens from the same period provide a wonderfully detailed illustration of life in the city of Kyoto, glimpsed through gaps in the golden clouds—a beggar with his bundle of clothes on a stick, ladies promenading in the evening or yatai (floats) being prepared for a festival.

Armour in the Edo period combined the skills of a number of craftsmen—the lacquer worker, the weaver (with panels of delicate brocade) and the metal worker who produced inlays of astonishing finesse. Particularly splendid is a helmet—thought to have belonged to the first Tokugawa shogun, Leyasu—with a bold design of butterflies and dragonflies humming around the Tokugawa crest. This dates from just before the Edo period.

Lacquer work is well represented, with an elaborate Palanquin in maki-e, its interior a bower of flowers and a number of writing boxes. An early Edo example has a bold design of butterflies and reeds, while another features a Chinese phoenix.

While Shogun and Daimyo were parading in their elaborate suits of armour, the merchants were enjoying their own art—ukiyo-e, wood block prints. Particularly popular, as communications improved in the country and travel became easier, were the series of views—of the inevitable Mount Fuji, and of scenic spots on the Tokaido road. A number of these figure in the show as do some inro and examples of calligraphy.

Of interest also is the museum itself. It is one of a few museums in Japan which belong to a religious group, of which the best known is the MOA in Atami (the recently opened Miho near Kyoto is another). Tokyo Fuji belongs to the powerful Soka Gakkai and is reputedly enormously rich. As well as its Japanese art holdings, it has an eclectic group of European paintings including works by Bellini, Frans Hals, Van Dyck, Poussin, Boucher, Gainsborough, Goya, Boudin, Corot, Monet, Renoir and many others, as well as some contemporary art. “Beauty in diversity” (until 22 March) is at the Tokyo Fuji Art Museum, % +81 (0)426 91 4511.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Beauty in diversity'