Of the MFA’s 700 ukiyo-e paintings, 100 are sexually explicit “shunga,” or “spring pictures,” which MFA curator Anne Nishimura Morse, who organized the exhibition, says amount to the largest group of erotic ukiyo-e paintings anywhere. (Now that would be an exhibit to see at the MFA.) She sprinkles a few erotic handscrolls throughout the exhibit. They’re filled with couples or threesomes in various states of undress tangled up in explicit sex. The characters’ anatomies kindly swash and squish for the sake of design and clarity. The penises are uniformly hulking.
The exhibit concludes with a gallery of paintings by Katsushika Hokusai (1760–1849). His mastery is apparent. He paints with freedom, energy, precision, and charisma, whether he’s depicting a woman gazing at herself in a mirror, the dazzling feathers of a phoenix, a curling dragon, or an old poet contemplating the great torrent of a waterfall. Zhong Kui, the Demon Queller (1805) depicts a legendary Chinese protective spirit in bold red brushstrokes across a white cotton flag that must have been astonishing when seen flapping in a breeze. The old man strides forward, his big worried eyes sunken into his skeletal face, his robe windswept. His right hand holds his sword precisely; his left reaches up uncertainly.
ZHONG KUI, THE DEMON QUELLER:
Hokusai’s painted cotton flag must have been
astonishing when seen flapping in a breeze.
Organized by the Museum of East Asian Art of National Museums in Berlin and presented in the MFA’s Japanese Paintings and Ceramics Galleries, the companion exhibit “Arts of Japan: The John C. Weber Collection” presents, from the New Yorker’s horde, some 80 fine wood, porcelain, and stoneware dishes, screens, scrolls, and kimonos, dating from the 12th to the 20th century. An anonymous 16th-century scroll imagines a 54-round competition among 36 characters from The Tale of Genji. The poets are drawn in fine, uninflected black-ink contour lines as calligraphic text curls about them like smoke or thoughts. Utagawa Toyokuni’s hanging scroll Courtesan in her Boudoir (circa 1818-’25) depicts a pale woman fixing her disheveled hair as her robe falls open revealing her breast. Japanese calligraphy says: “Perhaps you can guess/What has just happened/During a tryst by the pillow!/Asleep, my hair was tangled/By a tempest in the bedroom.”
An anonymous pair of 17th-century folding screens depict the Attack on the Rokuhara Palace. They resemble a scene from an Akira Kurosawa epic film as horsemen gather at the right and charge into a river. Archers lie in wait for them. Back at the palace, a discombobulated commander stands with his helmet on backwards.
An early-19th-century blue silk summer robe is embroidered with shimmering black cormorants that glide above water embroidered with a pattern of reeds, flowers, and fishing nets. A 20th-century man’s winter robe shows a googly-eyed cartoon spider with a devilish grin creeping toward a butterfly caught in its web. A 20th-century silk-and-rayon robe is stenciled with an abstracted purple-and-white tortoise-shell pattern.
After a brief intermission for World War II comes “Contemporary Outlook: Japan,” in the MFA’s Rabb Gallery, an okay sampler of 25 Japanese works that MFA curator William Stover has assembled from the museum’s collection and loans. The earliest works bubble up from an expressionist noir underbelly of Japan’s post-war recovery. Katsumi Watanabe’s 1970s photos show people in seedy bars, nightclubs, and hotels in a Tokyo red-light district. Daido Moriyama’s 1987 photo Tights peers between a woman’s legs in fishnet stockings and becomes an Op Art pattern.