Friday, December 16, 2011

Edo Pop – A Star in the East

The Edo Pop exhibit currently on display at the Minneapolis Institute of Art is mostly Edo, with very little Pop. That’s OK with me. The Edo period, which spans the shogunate of the Tokugawa clan, runs from 1603 to 1868. During that time artists you’ve probably heard of—Hiroshige, Hokusai, Utamaro—produced affordable woodblock prints of courtesans, Kabuki performers, scenes of Mt. Fuji, and floral and avian subjects that are a delight to behold.

The Institute owns scads of these works, and they’ve put the best of them on display in the first five rooms of the exhibit. In the last two rooms we have the privilege of seeing contemporary works—videos, acrylic paintings, brief amine films, masks—that draw upon the Ukiyo-E tradition. They’re far less interesting. But few, perhaps, are likely to rush to the museum and fork over $8 to see the prints we’ve been looking at all our lives for free.

Before the show we met some friends for Happy Hour at the Fuji-Ya, only a few blocks from the museum, where the rock-n-roll was booming out of the speakers above our heads. I asked our waitress, largely in jest, if they ever had live Koto music. She responded, “No, that was at the old place. And we all wore Kimonos there.” We were pleased to discover that she had actually worked at the old Fuji-Ya, down by the locks on the Mississippi River, for fifteen years. And she, in turn, was visibly pleased that we remembered it. In fact, I remember the Koto players they used to have there, and the water tumbling over the falls just outside the window. Hence the facetious question.

I ordered the hot sake, which comes in an earthenware pitcher. In all the Japanese films I’ve seen, two men pour for one another across the table repeatedly—the cups are very small—until both are pretty well drunk. But I was the only one in the group who ordered sake, and therefore I had to do all the pouring myself.

The food was simply great. Negi Mutsi, Shake Maki, Caterpillar (a long string of cucumber slices with a smoked eel running down the middle). It goes down too quickly, however, and the bill does mount up.

Our visit to the museum happened to be on a Third Thursday, during which the “youth” element is especially strong. A rock-n-roll band, The Brutes, was playing in the first floor atrium. People wearing ties and stylish dresses were crafting Christmas cards at a few folding tables nearby—no children in sight.

The first three rooms of the exhibit consisted of a long series of stylized renderings of geishas, semi-nude female abalone divers, kabuki stars, and scenes from Japanese folklore. I like these images for the same reason I like Homer. Beyond the artistic conventions lies an expressive force that appelas to us even today. And the world being depicted is pleasantly “primitive”—in other words, it’s largely free of junk.

In one print, a woman reads a poem-scroll. She has her ink tablet, and what looks to be a book press, too. There’s a samurai sword hanging near-by, in case the poetry gets out of hand, I guess.

In another print what appeals to me most is the slate green background. Later a stunning blue begins to appear. The text accompanying the prints is long and detailed. At a certain point I quit caring which Kabuki actor played what part, or where the illegal red light districts of Kobe were located in the eighteenth century. Time to just look and admire.

In the fourth room, just as our attention was beginning to lag, nature moved to the forefront of artistic interest. These are the famous and remarkable flowers and birds of Hokusai, the pilgrimage scenes of Hiroshige. I found myself looking longingly at some of the snow scenes. It’s mid-December, after all.

The final two rooms had fewer, but far larger works, many of them digital or photographic. It would take too long to describe what was interesting about them. For the most part, they signaled an vast increase in technological dependency, a regression into adolescence emotionally, and a noticable drop in expressive power.

The Institute has so many great works of art, that the discoveries we make on the way out are sometimes among the most memorable. On our way to the third floor to see the period rooms decked out in holiday festoons, we passed what has always been one of my three or four favorite works in the museum—the mille-fleur tapestry. Parked in front of the tapestry is a medieval sculpture of the Virgin and child. Also very nice. I happened to notice that the bends in her posture bear striking similarities to those of the courtesans in the red light district in Kyoto.

But a different message is being conveyed here. I think it has something to do with the child.

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