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Natural Harmony

The complex prettiness of Japanese art.

Oct 3, 2011, Vol. 17, No. 03 • By EVE TUSHNET
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There are the humorous panels of Kitagawa Utamaro’s “Enjoying the Cool Evening Breeze On and Under the Bridge,” whose comic-book conceit is that the people in each of the six panels are watching people in one of the other panels. The artist pokes gentle fun at the expense of these nosy, familiar characters. There’s even a scroll with acrobats riding bears! Something for everyone.

The Met presents this show as an introduction to one swath of Japanese aesthetics. Its captions emphasize the pervasive Chinese influence, and the interweaving of visual art and poetry. Captions note the association of certain images with moods: Quail apparently evoke isolation, for example, even when they appear in basically agricultural, and therefore implicitly social, scenes. Although it’s not easy to enter into contemplation in a major New York museum—amid hallway chatter, clicking cameras, and the guard’s low singsong warning, “Noooooo video!”—this exhibit’s smallish, slightly darkened rooms work hard to provide something approximating solitude.

Near the exit we get still more morning glories. These are from the 18th century, by Tawaraya Sôri, and the negative space here is even more imposing than in the Suzuki. The flowers unfurl from their tendrils at the outer edges of the big, pale screen, like astronauts venturing from the safety of their shuttle. The colors are not as battering as Suzuki’s—more muted and dusky—but the overall impact is still intensely dramatic. Japanese art, like nature itself, can be quite pretty. But as this show proves, even a flower on a trellis can inspire awe if you look at it the right way.

Eve Tushnet is a writer in Washington.

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