The woodblock print Shun the Great by Utagawa Kuniyoshi.
The following was originally published as “How the West was done in Japan” in Northwest Asian Weekly, October 20, 2007
Utagawa Kuniyoshi’s O-ban woodblock print Shun the Great may not be the most serious or the most historically significant object in Japan Envisions the West, an exhibit of 16th to 19th-century Japanese art from Kobe City Museum that opened at SAM Downtown last week. To my eye, however, it’s one of the more memorable pieces in a set of antiquities that, by and large, have just made their maiden voyage across the Pacific.
Kuniyoshi (1797-1861) shows a marvelous sense of perspective in placing the dwarfed figure of a laborer, bent over tilling the soil, in between a pair of pale gray, almost white pachyderms. One elephant faces us; the other turns his massive derrière to the viewer, raising his trunk in profile so that it reaches the line of distant mountaintops, while at the same time hovering directly over the peasant tending the grounds.
What’s noteworthy here is the coexistence of comic-grotesque elements with a feeling of utter serenity. Brown birds nestle on the hide of the forward-facing elephant, whose sharp tusks point in the landscaper’s direction. The worker in the red tunic devotedly goes about his task, perfectly at peace. The elephants could destroy him at any moment; his salvation lies in a job well done, no matter the circumstance.
While impressive prints, scrolls, and multipaneled screens loom throughout the galleries, some of the greatest pleasures on view are easy to miss. Ceramicist Ogata Shuhei’s Eight Plates with Dutch Figure Designs serves as a striking example of what the essayist Oka Yasumasa terms hollandisme, or the influence of Europe on Japanese art and the subsequent “craze” for Western-inspired items. Shuhei (1788-1839) painted outdoor designs on English creamware, depicting the leisure-class Dutch as oddly featured shapes with prominent noses, either bulbous or pointy. Their wardrobes, ostensibly European, also betray signs of Japanese garments. The result is an elegant fusion of styles, neither wholly Western nor Eastern.
Among the larger-scale works, the anonymously painted hand scrolls Scenes of Dutch Settlement in Nagasaki, based on sketches by the city magistrate’s official inspector Watanabe Shuseki (1639-1707), portray trader-host relations as they might have been. In reality, the Dutch were confined to Dejima, a landfill island in Nagasaki harbor that the traders considered a prison.
The picture, nonetheless, displays a kind of harmony: Through open windows of a warehouse-residence, we can spy into a dinner party in one room; in another, musicians play the viola da gamba and other European instruments to regale a visiting samurai.
Two boxes are well worth seeking out. In the first, the anonymous black and gold-lacquered Jewel Box With Landscape Design conveys a sense of secrecy and isolation. On its lower front panel, two birds hover above an empty pagoda, the black expanse of the background seeming like the darkest possible night; beyond this, on the panel that curves to meet the top lid, another open-air structure stands forlornly abandoned, the only life in the scene once again being avian, and all flocking in the opposite direction.
There are humans represented here, a pair of lovers, but they’re “hidden” from our scrutiny, at least until we walk around the box and find them sequestered on the right side. The two figures positioned in mid-air appear to be floating, until you notice the woman riding on the man’s back, as if he were a magic carpet.
The second box contains a treasure within a treasure. Peep-show Box (circa 1764-81) belongs to the megane-e form, in which optical paintings, specifically landscape paintings, are viewed through a convex lens. The dimensions are small, 10½ x 15⅝ x 15½ inches, yet what a dazzling panorama lurks within! Peek inside, and there you find Utagawa Toyoharu’s View of Nakanomachi at Shin’yoshiwara, a visually arresting vast perspective that takes your eye across layers of starry firmament and travelers on a high road in the distance.
In the foreground, Toyoharu (1735-1814) stages kimono-clad revelers traversing a crowded street, with the main sources of light in the painting emanating from bright lanterns and pavilion windows. It is a rapturous achievement, even if you have to crouch a little to take it all in.
See Japan Envisions the West: 16th-19th Century Japanese Art From Kobe City Museum at the Seattle Art Museum, 1300 First Ave., Seattle, Oct. 11 – Jan. 6. For more information, visit www.seattleartmuseum.org.