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The Shoguns' Secrets

A show of works from Japan's culturally fertile Edo period includes treasures that have never before left the country.

November 22, 1998|STANLEY MEISLER | Stanley Meisler is a Times staff writer

WASHINGTON — In 1615, Tokugawa Ieyasu, the Japanese shogun, or military feudal overlord, defeated his remaining rivals to emerge as unchallenged ruler of Japan, bringing on 2 1/2 centuries of unprecedented peace and prosperity under army rule.

The calm and the riches during the reign of 15 successive Tokugawa shoguns fostered an incredible outburst of art--on screens and scrolls and kimonos and textiles and porcelain and lacquer and helmets and woodblocks--in an era that is known as the Edo period in Japan.

Although the Japanese art that is most familiar in the United States, like samurai armor or Katsushika Hokusai's color woodblock print "Great Wave," dates from the Edo period, most of the work of that period is usually out of American sight, kept in Japanese collections and rarely loaned.

Americans now have an extraordinary chance to see some of the finest works of Edo in the stunning exhibition "Edo: Art in Japan 1615-1868" that opened at the National Gallery of Art in Washington last Sunday and continues through Feb. 15. The show will not travel.

"This is the largest show of Japanese art in this decade anywhere in the world, including Japan," said Robert T. Singer, curator of Japanese art at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the guest curator of the Washington exhibition.

Singer, who worked in Japan for 14 years as a research fellow at Kyoto University and as a teacher of Japanese art history before joining LACMA in 1988, spent four years cajoling and begging for the 300 pieces in the show, including 47 that are classified by the Japanese government either as official "national treasures" or as important and fragile enough to require government permission to travel outside Japan.

"I asked for all the great things that I've seen in 25 years," he said in a recent interview in the exhibition galleries. "I called in all my chits. I think I got 98% of everything I asked for. I got things I really didn't expect."

Visitors, however, will only see half of what Singer garnered, unless they come to the gallery more than once. The Japanese have set six weeks as the limit that almost all their pieces can remain on exhibition in Washington. The Japanese are so concerned about the sensitivity of the pieces to light, Singer said, that "they only bring them out for a few days every year in Japan."

Gallery workers will start removing pieces and substituting similar ones in early January. The exhibition will be almost completely different by Jan. 12. That may cause some confusion. A visitor this week may be puzzled by the failure to find the 17th century Hikone screen featured on the cover of Singer's massive catalog. The screen, which has never before left Japan, will not emerge in the exhibition until January.

"It's like having two exhibitions in one," said Singer. "It's great for curators."

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The Edo period takes its name from the town of Edo, which served as the military headquarters for the shoguns while figurehead emperors remained in the imperial capital of Kyoto. The shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu had expelled the Christian missionaries, and his successors tried to keep Japan isolated from the rest of the world. This shut out most Western influence at a time of growth and exuberance. Encouraged by an emerging, wealthy merchant class that wanted, and could pay for, stylish objects for beauty and prestige, the arts flourished throughout Japan.

In a time of rapid urbanization, the population of Edo soared, reaching more than a million in 1720, probably making it the largest city in the world. Although other Japanese cities also prospered and produced a bounty of art, the city of Edo dominated and stamped its name on the era. The authority of the shogun weakened in the mid-19th century, partly because the shogun of the time accepted American demands to open up Japanese trade. The power of the emperor was restored in 1868, and the imperial court moved to Edo and changed the city's name to Tokyo or "eastern capital."

Organizing the exhibition posed problems for Singer because of the extent and variety of the Edo period. "It's like doing a show in Western art from the Renaissance to the modern age," he said.

Rather than separate the objects by art forms--putting porcelain, textiles and woodblock prints, for example, in different rooms, Singer decided to divide the exhibition by themes: ornament; samurai; work; religion and festivals; travel, landscape and nature; and entertainment.

"The Japanese do not separate fine art and decorative art," said Singer. "That's a Western idea. In Japan, there is no distinction." The same artist might paint porcelain as well as a scroll, and Singer wanted both works in the same room.

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