You will have seen art from the Edo Period—its most recognizable images are the ukiyo-e prints: mass-produced woodblock scenes of popular entertainment and Japanese landscapes, the most world-famous of which is Katushika Hokusai’s The Great Wave off Kanagawa from 1829. These prints were ubiquitous, disseminated through the city’s pleasure quarters, and sold, it’s colloquially said, as cheaply as a second helping of noodles. And before Edo Japan opened up to the world and these inexpensive prints were splashed all over Europe, they were bought almost exclusively as souvenirs by a growing Japanese middle class, a pictorial keepsake of insular pride. The Great Wave is itself an amalgam of some of Japan’s most distinctive characteristics, illustrating its relationship with the spiritual anchor of Mount Fuji, and with the sea itself, which is embodied in both the quotidian economics of the fishing industry, and in the Buddhist philosophy of a wave’s impermanence.
Yet these small-scale, delicate, disposable prints comprise only a fraction of the art from the period and what is on offer at “Painting Edo,” which speaks to the scale and scope of this exhibition. It is the largest special exhibition ever mounted at the Harvard Art Museum, and the one hundred and twenty objects presented span multiple painting schools that thrived during the Edo Period: from the deliberately amateur style of the Literati School, to the sumptuous golds of the patronized Kano School, to the subtly layered breaths of cloud and mountain landscape painting, to the whole condensed narratives revealed in the arc of a fan. These almost endlessly unfurling galleries might feel daunting if the objects and their presentation didn’t create such intimacy, the ample wall space and generous cases allowing scrolls and screens to fully display exquisite details that invite you to stay close.
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