On a sunny autumn day, I visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art to appreciate the exhibition of “Celebrating the Arts of Japan: The Mary Griggs Collection.” The divided small room in the Museum was filled with a lot of precious Japanese paintings, sculptures and statues.
As a museum goer, I find many unique exhibits in the collection including Haniwa (Clay Sculpture) of a Female which is often appeared on Japanese pamphlets or art books. The exhibition is sponsored by the famous Mary and Jackson Burke Foundation.
By appreciating the
precious exhibits, I learned the development of Japanese art time to time. Although there are many unique exhibits, I have chosen three paintings to reflect Japanese society in the era of paintings. The range of painting is vary from Heian to Edo period and will analyze the society and culture at that time.
The first painting caught my eyes was The Tale of Sumiyoshi (Gallery 223). The painting was painted in the late 13th century during the Kamakura period (1185-1333).
According the label of the painting, The Tale of Sumiyoshi is one of Japan’s earliest romantic novels, predating the famous novel the Tale of Genji by a half century. The painting depicts reunion of long separated two lovers at Sumiyoshi. In the scene, people are carrying a colorful palanquin where the bride is in. On the other side, the bridegroom is coming on a horse with his friend and guards. The colorful palanquin reminds me a court lady of Medieval Japan who was excel in writing and drawing.
The man with black cloth and a long knife in the side of bridegroom also reflects the raise of Samurai class in the Heian period. Samurais were originally hired by the court as a court guard but later formed its own social class. Honestly, the painting is not colorful compare to the other paintings that will be dealt later, but it shows social aspects of Heian period by depicting details of characters.
The second is Shaka Triad and Sixteen Arhats which is another painting from the Kamakura period. I chose this painting because it portrays the influence of Buddhism in Japan. The painting is not big or large, but has a lot of characters. Buddha is on the top and other monks
were blow Buddha. Among the characters, one character draw my attention. He is located at left bottom in a red robe. At first sight, I immediately knew that he is not a monk but a bureaucrat or a noble man. The label of painting tells that the man’s name is Shotoku Taishi, an imperial prince who was a strong patron of Buddhism in Asuka period (538-710). Buddhism was introduced to Japan during the Asuka period and become one of two prominent religions in Japan along with Shintoism. Although I do not understand the orders of characters in the painting, I was able to sense the strong influence of Buddhism in Kamakura period.
The last, but not least is Three Gods of Good fortune visit the Yoshiwara: or “scenes of Pleasure at the Height of Spring.” This was painted by Chobunsai Eishi (1756-1829) in the early 19h century about the Edo period (1615-1886). Unlike the previous paintings, Eishi’s painting is
much colorful and contains more details of Edo society. As the title of the painting indicates, the painting is about gods visiting Yshiwara which was famous for pleasure quarters. The dress of geishas in the painting is very Ccolorful. It seems the gods are choosing geishas for a party and some of them are going back because they were not chosen. The scene of dancing and singing of gods with geishas portrays that entertainment is well developed in the Edo period. It seems that geishas have their own maids. The painting shows the existence of well-developed entertainment culture of Edo period.
Art is another form of record of human history. With this sense, appreciating unique Japanese art helped me to learn more about Japanese history in culture. The Tale of Sumiyoshi shows emergence of samurai class and Shaka Triad and Sixteen Arhats shows the influence of Buddhism in Japan. By seeing a historical figure in a Buddhist painting, I sensed the dominant power of Buddhism in the Medieval Japan. Three Gods of Good fortune visit the Yoshiwara is also well portrayed the changing society. The painting has no religious nuance at all but only realism. When I was appreciating the exhibition in the museum, I realized that I actually understand some of vessels and paintings by remembering lectures from the Japanese Civilization class. Gladly the exhibition will be held until next year so I can visit them again.