Category Archives: Japanese Art

Utamaro: The Musical at the Freer|Sackler

“Utamaro: The Musical,” recently performed at the Freer|Sackler.

More than two hundred years after his death, the great Japanese artist Kitagawa Utamaro (1753–1806) came back to life for visitors to the Freer|Sackler this summer. The Tokyo-based It’s Follies musical company visited the museums June 30 through July 2 to perform excerpts from their hit 1985 production Utamaro: The Musical.

Five actors in full costume played the great artist himself as well as a kabuki-style narrator and several of Utamaro’s main muses—courtesans from the famous red-light districts of old Edo. Five performances drew a combined audience of nearly six hundred guests to these programs that complemented our exhibition Inventing Utamaro: A Japanese Masterpiece Rediscovered.

Actress Kurumi Sakai as the kabuki-style narrator of the show.

Their opening number, “Ryogoku, My Town,” extols the stimulating variety of “lonesome losers” who populated the town. The lyrics describe a litany of “pickpockets, snitches, spongers, debt collectors, ruffians, pimps, luggage thieves, sheriffs, sloths, fallen drug dealers, gamblers, drunkards, pilferers, drag queens, male prostitutes, old maids, con men, fakers, storytellers, tumblers, street performers . . . anything is in Ryogoku. This town is my town, I like to walk in this town, a town where lonesome losers lost in the game of life.”

Standing out among the plethora of low-life characters are royalty of the red-light district—the high-end courtesans (oiran) who could be seen by commoners only during a formal parade. One such courtesan was played by actress Yuko Katsube. Her costume featured an ornate kimono and the twelve-inch-tall elevated shoes called koma-geta or mitsu-ashi, worn only by these high-ranking women.

Utamaro (played by Yu Yoshida, left) persuades teahouse worker Okita Naniwaya (played by Tamami Mizutani) to pose for some of his best-selling portraits.

By now a best-selling artist, Utamaro is commissioned to paint a popular waitress at the Naniwa teahouse (which the narrator compares to a modern-day Starbucks). Instead, his attention is drawn to a new girl, Okita, who works there only part-time. Reluctant at first, she is finally persuaded to pose for Utamaro by his persistent and poetic approaches, dramatized in the song “The Woman in You.”

“There is another woman inside you,” he sings, “even though you don’t know. It’s a woman I was looking for, a woman I want to draw a picture of. That is the other woman inside you. Your smile sparkles over the stream on a clear morning. Your portrait is flickering in the candlelight. A beautiful woman radiating her beauty. She is born again.”

Utamaro’s portraits sell wildly and turn Okita into a celebrity.

One of Utamaro’s many famous illustrations of Okita. “Naniwaya Okita,” Kitagawa Utamaro (early 1750s–1806), Japanese, Edo period (about 1793), woodblock print, publisher Tsutaya Jûzaburô (Kôshodô), Museum of Fine Arts Boston, 11.14243, William Sturgis Bigelow Collection

Disaster strikes when the reigning ruler, Okitsugu Tanuma, a man who long tolerated the excesses of the red-light district, is replaced by his rival, Sadanobu Matsudaira, a staunch opponent of the city’s culture. The new ruler bans all manner of arts and entertainment, including the courtesan portraits that had made Utamaro famous and successful. Not only does Matsudaira ban these practices, but he seizes the artists’ assets and places them, handcuffed, under house arrest.

The rise of an intolerant new ruler is dramatized in the program.

Under this repressive new regime, Utamaro is asked to paint the portrait of a warrior, which he refuses to do on principle, agonizing over his turn in fortune while wearing handcuffs. He wonders aloud what people two hundred years later might think, and our kabuki narrator explains that one art form—music—became a vehicle of protest known as rock ‘n’ roll. “Resistance to authority that Utamaro showed with ukiyo-e (woodblock prints) is like what today’s youth do with music,” says the narrator.

“I understand that spirit of resistance called rock,” Utamaro declares. “I am living in the same time with you. Dreams, separation, tearing, meaninglessness, setbacks, friendship, nostalgia, oblivion, decadence, loneliness, fatigue, temptation, misunderstanding, defeat, and despair. These are friends of me and you.”

Utamaro (center) demonstrates his determination to continue painting, despite the repressive regime that has taken over Edo.

Utamaro is joined by the full ensemble for the program’s final number, a rousing anthem to resistance and determination called “Rock Land”:

I am living in the same time with you,
feeling lonely in a crowd,
looking on with nostalgia from a cold street corner,
confused by my old diaries,
as I dance fatigued at a bar before dawn,
as I drape my arm casually across a bench of age-old stone,
waiting for a long-awaited dream,
while I am laughing and saying life is full of good-byes,
while I realize I face only despair in the future,
believing in victory though it may never come to me.
Go across the highway and run through the side roads.
My friend, let’s sing a cry of the soul.
I am living with you in Rock Land.

The full ensemble sings the finale, “Rock Land,” with (left to right) Yuko Katsube as Toyohina Tomimoto, Kurumi Sakai as Kyogenmawashi, Yu Yoshida as Kitagawa Utamaro, Haruka Ohkawa as Ohisa Takashima, and Tamami Mizutani as Okita Naniwaya.

In 1804, Utamaro was jailed for three days and handcuffed for fifty days. Two years later, after his release, he died. The program’s final slide affirms that “Utamaro’s soul has never stopped living among Japanese people in the two hundred years since his death.”

Photographs by Hutomo Wicaksono

National Cat Day: Courtesan Beneath a Mosquito Net

Courtesan Beneath a Mosquito Net; Utagawa Kunisada (1786–1864); Japan, Edo period, 1855; hanging scroll; ink and color on silk; Purchase—Harold P. Stern Memorial Fund, F1995.17

Courtesan Beneath a Mosquito Net; Utagawa Kunisada (1786–1864); Japan, Edo period, 1855; hanging scroll; ink and color on silk; Purchase—Harold P. Stern Memorial Fund, F1995.17

This scene of a courtesan emerging from a mosquito net as her cat returns her gaze alludes to a well-known episode from the eleventh-century Japanese work The Tale of Genji. Prince Genji’s wife, the Third Princess, was concealed from public view, as was the custom among women of high status. When her cat pushed aside a bamboo blind, however, the princess was revealed to the courtier Kashiwagi, and thus began a secret affair between the two.

Inscribed at the top of the painting is a poem by Honda Jinzaburo (1781–1861), whose pen name was Tenmei Rojin. The poem alludes to the source of mosquito nets—the vendors from Omi near Lake Biwa—and to the trysts of courtesans beneath the netting on steamy summer nights:

No matter whom
the maiden meets
under the omi net,
her arm shows the mark
of a mosquito’s stinger.

Translation by John Carpenter

Scenes of the 1923 Earthquake

One of the "Scenes of the 1923 Earthquake" by Japanese artist Nishimura Goun

One of the “Scenes of the 1923 Earthquake” by Japanese artist Nishimura Goun

 

Ninety-three years ago today, the Great Kanto Earthquake rocked Japan, destroying Tokyo and Yokohama and wreaking widespread damage. The jolt struck at 11:58 am, when many residents were cooking their lunches over open fires. As stoves were overturned and gas mains ruptured, blazes quickly erupted, ravaging the cities’ wooden houses and anything else in their paths. A 300-foot-tall fire tornado, or “dragon twist,” tore through an area near Tokyo’s Sumida River where tens of thousands had sought shelter from the chaos; only a few hundred survived.

The earthquake’s epicenter was in the waters of Sagami Bay, triggering a tsunami that reached heights of forty feet. In the ancient capital of Kamakura, a twenty-foot wave killed some three hundred people and shifted the city’s Great Buddha—weighing in at 121 tons—by more than a foot. A total of about 140,000 people perished in the disaster.

Nishimura Goun (1877–1938), a Kyoto painter known for his soft, lyrical renderings of birds, fish, animals, and flowers, turned to the earthquake as the subject for this handscroll, which he completed two years afterward. To report the devastation of September 1, 1923, Goun adopted the traditional horizontal format of episodes linked by text. Although Goun was a Kyoto artist, his scenes seem to be based on first-hand observation. The result is an odd union of harsh subject matter and his signature gentle style.

 

(Every Day is) Dog Day

Hound

Hound

Give your pup some love for National Dog Day! Small jade animals like this hound were enjoyed as handsome decorations by China’s elite. Due to jade’s cool surface, they were also used as objects to caress. Hounds are, in general, well regarded in China; one of the years of the zodiac is named after the dog. In fact, this jade object might have been presented to someone born in the year of the dog. The slender animal wears a collar with a bell, suggesting that it is a hunting dog.

Incense box with relief figure of lion

Incense box with relief figure of lion

The mythical lion dog, such as the one that decorates this incense box, symbolizes strength and protection, especially of children. The image of a lion dog frolicking among peonies is a favored combination in both Chinese and Japanese imagery.

Puppies in the Snow

Puppies in the Snow

Japanese artist Isoda Koryusai (1735–1790) produced some 150 designs of flowers, birds, and animals. In one of his most charming works, seven puppies huddle together under a shelter that protects a blossoming narcissus from the snow. The print incorporates references to 1778, the year of the dog and when it was published. Calendar prints like this example were distributed as gifts at the beginning of the New Year; on the lunar calendar, this fell in mid- to late February, when narcissus began to bloom but snow might still fall.

Japanese Music for the Summer Solstice

Flowers and a brook; Japan, Edo period, 18th century; six-panel screens, color over gold on paper; Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1897.27–28

Click to zoom in! Flowers and a brook; Japan, Edo period, 18th century; six-panel screens, color over gold on paper; Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1897.27–28

The seasons are frequent subjects of art, but the transitions between them can be difficult to capture. With spring formally becoming summer today, it’s an appropriate time to note the Japanese tradition of narrative paintings that portray seasonal shifts—and the work of a Japanese composer with a similar aim.

One of our Japanese screens from the Edo period (1615–1868), Flowers and a Brook, shows plants blooming in sequence along the shift from spring to summer (right to left). This technique is frequently employed in Japanese screen paintings to depict multiple seasons in a single image. In a musical parallel, Japanese composer Minoru Miki wrote his “Hanayagi” (The Greening) in 1976 as one movement in a larger work representing a year of changing seasons. According to the composer, this work for solo koto “sings in praise of the brilliant life-power of the seasons as they slowly shift from spring to early summer.”

You can listen to this gorgeous ten-minute piece on our concert podcast of koto virtuoso Reiko Kimura, recorded in the Meyer Auditorium in 1998, when she appeared here as part of the Music From Japan Festival (based in New York). Four years before this concert, Kimura joined the New York Philharmonic Orchestra for the premiere of Minoru Miki’s Symphony of Two Worlds at Lincoln Center. Skip to 39:38 and listen to the end to hear the sounds of seasonal change.

Happy Father’s Day!

Americans Strolling About; Utagawa Yoshifuji (1828–1887); Japan, Edo period, 1861; woodblock print, ink and color on paper; Gift of the Daval Foundation, from the Collection of Ambassador and Mrs. William Leonhart; S1991.150

Americans Strolling About; Utagawa Yoshifuji (1828–1887); Japan, Edo period, 1861; woodblock print, ink and color on paper; Gift of the Daval Foundation, from the Collection of Ambassador and Mrs. William Leonhart; S1991.150

Happy Father’s Day, dads! In this 1861 Japanese woodblock print by Utagawa Yoshifuji (1828–1887), the father is depicted smoking a cigar, a form of tobacco that was probably introduced to Japan by American residents of Yokohama. Tobacco had been smoked in elongated pipes since its inception by the Portuguese in the sixteenth century. The Japanese word for Americans, Amerikajin, has been divided awkwardly into syllables so that the letters correspond as closely as possible to Japanese phonetic script (and to make them fit into the vertical frame).

See more fathers in our collections.

ImaginAsia: The Lost Finger

Guardian figure; Japan, Kamakura period, 1185–1333; wood (Cryptomeria japonica); Purchase—Charles Lang Freer Endowment, F1949.20

Guardian figure; Japan, Kamakura period, 1185–1333; wood (Cryptomeria japonica); Purchase—Charles Lang Freer Endowment, F1949.20

All was still, absolutely still as the moon rose over the National Mall in Washington, DC. The visitors had left, and the Freer|Sackler was eerily quiet. A shaft of moonlight pierced the museum’s skylights and flooded over the Japanese guardian figures standing proudly in the hallway. Under the magic of the moon, the figures slowly came to life. Towering over mere mortals and rippling with muscles, the guardians were an intimidating sight. In their earlier history, the figures stood guard in front of a Buddhist temple, but that night they battled fierce demons to defend the art collections of the Freer|Sackler.

The next morning, one of our security officers noticed a finger belonging to the guardian figure pictured above resting on its pedestal. It must have been a fearsome fight . . .

Well, OK, that’s probably not exactly how it happened. The only thing we know for sure about that incident in April 2009 is that the security officer found the finger and called me, Ellen Chase, objects conservator. At the Freer|Sackler, we do have figures who fight to defend the collection—but we aren’t made of wood (and we have much smaller muscles). We work in the Department of Conservation and Scientific Research.

The Freer|Sackler Objects Lab.

The Freer|Sackler Objects Lab.

Please Don’t Touch
When you go to museums, there often are a lot of “Please don’t touch” signs. But why? It’s because art is a lot more fragile than it seems. The guardians are so big that it is hard to imagine they are delicate, but the wood is at least six hundred years old and can be brittle. Instead of being sacrificed during a brutal fight to defend the museum, the finger more likely was knocked off by a visitor who got too close.

Besides the risk of breaking off a piece, there are a few really big reasons why we ask you to not touch the art:

  1. Touching an artwork just one time doesn’t seem like it would have much impact. But each time someone moves their hand across an object, a tiny bit is rubbed off. Over time, this contact can cause a lot of damage. For example, look inside this installation in the Smithsonian’s Natural History Museum:rubbed patina _NMNH
    See the part that looks shiny rather than dark? That’s where people have rubbed off the dark brown layer, or patina. It’s OK in this case—the museum intended for people to touch the object—but what if it weren’t?
  2. Everyone has oils on their hands. When you touch something, you leave some of those oils behind, creating your unique fingerprints. Those residues also can cause damage. Check out this lacquer lid of a ewer in our collection that has fingerprints etched into the surface from oils left behind. We can’t get the prints off; they are now part of the object.

    Fingerprint on the lacquer lid of a Karatsu ware ewer or freshwater jar.

    Fingerprint on the lacquer lid of a Karatsu ware ewer or freshwater jar.

  3. Unless you just washed your hands, remainders of anything else you touched recently will be left on the art as well. So those Nacho Cheese Doritos you had in your lunch? Yup. They’re on there too. As conservators, we wash our hands really well before working with art. And for really sensitive materials, like metals or lacquer or ivory, we also wear gloves.

Try This
Many works of art and historic objects are unique, the only examples of their kind in the world. And every time someone touches one of these objects in the gallery, we lose a little bit of history. Wanna see what I mean? Try this activity and see what happens—and send me pictures!

Take a piece of white printer paper and cover half of it with plastic wrap. Place it at the door of your house or classroom, or another place with a lot of foot traffic (the bathroom, maybe?). Ask everyone to touch or rub the material every time they walk by. Check back in two weeks. What has happened to the exposed part of the object? How does it compare to the side that is covered? What does it make you think about museums’ “don’t touch” policy?

collage

This is the first in a series of blog posts for kids who are interested in art conservation. Follow along for more behind-the-scenes looks at why and how we care for our collections, working to protect and conserve art for you today as well as for future visitors. What do you want to know? We’d love to hear your questions and comments!

The Saddest Toad

Large Toad; artist: Obaku Tokuan (act. 1910–35); calligrapher: Ōbaku Chokuō 黄檗直翁 (1867–1937); Japan, Taisho era, 1919; hanging scroll, ink and color on paper; Purchase from the Estate of Robert O. Muller with funds from the Friends of the Freer and Sackler Galleries and the Harold P. Stern Memorial Fund, F2004.29

Large Toad; artist: Obaku Tokuan (act. 1910–35); calligrapher: Ōbaku Chokuō 黄檗直翁 (1867–1937); Japan, Taisho era, 1919; hanging scroll, ink and color on paper; Purchase from the Estate of Robert O. Muller with funds from the Friends of the Freer and Sackler Galleries and the Harold P. Stern Memorial Fund, F2004.29

In case you missed it, the Large Toad took the #MarchSadness crown. One of his many fans asked about the writing behind him. Thanks to our talented fellow Alessandro Bianchi, we now have a translation:

奇哉膨月亨

How uncanny! [A toad with such a] large belly

肚裏乾坤

The universe [resides] in its stomach;

一息之際

With every single breath [it takes]

萬象吐呑

All living beings respire.

Spring Has Sprung: Japan

Spring in Mount Atago, from the series Twelve Scenes of Tokyo; Kawase Hasui (1883–1957); Japan, Taisho era, 1921; woodblock print; Robert O. Muller Collection, S2003.8.623

Spring in Mount Atago, from the series Twelve Scenes of Tokyo; Kawase Hasui (1883–1957); Japan, Taisho era, 1921; woodblock print; Robert O. Muller Collection, S2003.8.623

It’s officially spring. In Japan, Vernal Equinox Day is a public holiday—a day to spend time with family and appreciate nature.

The annual cycle of the seasons has been integral to the lives and art of Japanese people since the earliest historical times. Naturally, seasonal associations permeate Japanese literature, art, and customs. The hazy moon of spring, for example, is called oborozuki, while the bright harvest moon of autumn is called meigetsu.

Oborozuki; Toyohara Chikanobu (1838–1912); Japan; woodblock print; Robert O. Muller Collection, S2003.8.2577

Oborozuki; Toyohara Chikanobu (1838–1912); Japan; woodblock print; Robert O. Muller Collection, S2003.8.2577

Intimate views of nature came to dominate representations of the seasons in Japanese art, with specific images associated with each. Early spring is evoked by blossoming plum and the first cry of the warbler; the brief, lush glory of cherry blossoms comes later that same season. Summer equates with abundant flowers and the call of the cuckoo; autumn with red maples, chrysanthemums, and geese in flight; and winter with frozen waters and falling snow.

Spring landscape with blossoming cherries; Japan, Edo period, early 17th century; six-panel screen, ink, color, and gold on paper; Gift of Mrs. Garnet Hulings, F1984.39

Spring landscape with blossoming cherries; Japan, Edo period, early 17th century; six-panel screen, ink, color, and gold on paper; Gift of Mrs. Garnet Hulings, F1984.39

Visit Open F|S to see spring represented throughout our collections of Asian and American art.

NYFW: Catwalk-Worthy Fashions in Our Collections

New York Fashion Week has officially hit the runways. As top designers’ latest work is swooned over and scrutinized, let’s look at a few catwalk-worthy styles from Asian art history.

 

japan-fashion

As documented in such publications as Fruits magazine, Japanese street style pushes boundaries a bit further each year. Going back a few centuries proves that Japanese fashion has a history of catching eyes. There would be no missing the girl in an orange vermilion dress, painted somewhere between 1661 and 1673. Compare her ensemble to the eighteenth- or nineteenth-century silk costumes made for No performances. Gold is seen extensively in No costumes, used to reflect light and highlight the actors’ slow, stylized movements.

 

china-collage

Long, flowing robes also were en vogue in China, as seen in these tiny but detailed figurines dating between the eighth and thirteenth centuries.

 

china-fashion2

A few hundred years later, noblewomen wore coats over their floor-length robes. Dating to the mid-1800s, this summer surcoat is patterned with encircled dragons. The number of these roundels—and of the dragons’ claws—let everyone know the high status of the woman within the silk garment. The woman in the nineteenth- or early twentieth-century portrait posed in her coat, which she paired with a headpiece made of vivid kingfisher feathers. Speaking of which: Check back for a post on fabulous accessories in our collections.