Bebe Taian: Book Review: Art of Edo Japan - Christine Guth

May 25, 2012

Book Review: Art of Edo Japan - Christine Guth

I checked out some books this week to get some ideas for BT. I hope to read all of them soon and maybe have some reviews!

I had no idea how many books on Japanese culture were in my library system. Five years ago, we had maybe a third of these! I think it is because there is now a greater presence and demand for them, especially since the local university has two Japanese language/culture programs. This makes me very happy.

The first book up for review is "Art of Edo Japan: The Artist and the City, 1615-1868", by Christine Guth. At 176 pages, it isn't a giant tome, and is a bit shorter than a novel. Many colour photos are included. My copy was printed in 1996. Subsequent editions seem to have different cover art.

The cover is initially engaging, a dark, clean image of Hiroshige's 'Fireworks Over Ryouguku Bridge' (1857), the title superimposed in a burnt orange. The back is the same orange, with a summary detailing the approach to the critique of Edo period of art, noting that the lens of viewing in this circumstance is that "of an urban perspective".

The opening pages have a clean layout, and covers Edo art not just from Edo (old Tokyo) itself, but the Edo period. There is a section each for Kyoto, Edo, Osaka and Nagasaki (one part), and 'Itinerant, Provincial, and Rural Artists'. Included is also a timeline at the back, detailing each province on a grid, divided by 50 year increments, and some major events that occurred at the time, which influenced the art of the area. Also included are the approximate deaths of many artists.

The subject matter itself does not focus on ukiyo-e strictly, but relies heavily on it for portrayals of life during the Edo period. Textiles, tea ceremony, and other forms of art are discussed, mostly to help the reader understand the culture of the time and how people viewed such activities. According to her, there were Four Accomplishments which any person must possess to be seen as cultured: music, painting, calligraphy, and games of skill. This was because they were also highly prized in China, which had a surprising amount of influence on the trends in Edo at the time.

The section on Kyoto shows an impressive set of folding screens, all of them painted beautifully. Most of the Kyoto art deals with various forms of painting, including textile art. Details of some artists' lives are discussed, as are the Maruyama-Shijou School, the Literati movement of the 1700s, and some 'individualist' artists, who were believed to have special status due to their eccentricities. Oddities in an artist were seen as a sign of creativity and the mark of a special talent in art.

Edo (the city) covers Ieyasu, Kiyonaga, Hokusai, Kunisada, the Kano School, the transition from black and white drawings to polychrome woodblock prints, and quite a few interesting events. Plenty of larger, full-colour prints are included.

Osaka and Nagasaki seemed to have a very different approach to art, compared to the traditional Edo styles we know. Portraits were sometimes much more realistic, including fine shading of the skin, details of folds and shadows in clothing, and more defined features. Keiga especially was a master of this style. However, the style and popularity of Edo-style ukiyo-e was not lost, even here. Nagasaki was also an outlet for artists seeking outside influences, namely European (the Dutch and Portuguese were the big players then) and Chinese. Foreigners were still largely banned from the country, and were heavily restricted simply because Japan depended on some of their imports. The 'otherness' of these cultures provided fresh ideas for these exploratory artists.

The last section, on itinerant and rural artists, includes some mentions of Okinawan clothing, wood carvings from various places, pottery, and some paintings. I think the section could have been larger, but overall, it makes sense given the context and focus on the more urban areas, which were more thoroughly documented due to their popularity.

It's an interesting read for the art scholar and enthusiast, but if you're just looking for nice pictures to look at, this book is probably not for you. If, however, you are looking for something more involved than a collection of images divided by artist or somesuch, and want to know more about life in the Edo period in reference to the art forms of that time, give it a try. At fewer than 200 pages, including glossary and timelines, it's a scholarly guide without being dry and massive like a college textbook, covering not only the most famous of artists but also some lesser-known ones.

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