East meets West

By GREG COOK  |  March 24, 2009

Some scenes reflect Japan's entering and being at home in the modernized Western world. Shunkô Saeki's Tearoom painting of two uniformed waitresses with zombie expressions standing at attention next to a rack of potted plants speaks of the changing place of women in Japanese society. "Liberated" women came into the city from the country to find work and support themselves, independent of men. Tetsu Kasuda's A Stylish Beauty Dressed in a Kimono Standing Beside a Decorated Christmas Tree illustrates how in the 1930s Japanese adopted the Western holiday of Christmas as a secular time of gift giving — as well as a way to mark the anniversary of Hirohito's accession to the throne and the birth of his son Akihito (the emperor today).

Biichi Takata's screens show cormorants hovering over roiling waters and another bird perched on a boulder as the green sea crashes around it. Reimei Shindô's pair of screens, Foot of the Falls, depict the white rush of water splashing among the mossy green rocks and then coursing through a gorge behind a bent branch sprouting autumn gold leaves. The scenes evoke a tender, delicate mood — capturing both the surging force of nature and the refreshing calm of a holiday in the wilds.

Such pictures at first appear traditional, but Western influences are visible in the thickness and opacity of the paint (versus the thin washes of traditional Japanese art), the scale of both the works and their subjects (traditional screens might approach this size, but they tended to show many small elements rather than the life-sized figures here), and the way the works are presented (increasingly framed, rather than as scrolls or screens).

These paintings were produced mainly for local eyes; they were first displayed at government-sponsored exhibitions modeled on official French salons. They all come from the collection of Rikizo Hosokawa, who bought them to decorate a complex of wedding halls, restaurants, and saunas that he began to erect on the outskirts of Tokyo in 1931.

The exhibit offers no insight into the contrast between the pacific paintings and the fighting that was to come. The only mentions of war are notes that "Hosokawa kept his collection intact during the war years" and "Ultimately, Japan's 1937 invasion of China doomed the tourism agenda." Japan battled China in 1894-'95 over control of Korea. It fought Russia in 1904-'05 for dominance in Korea and Manchuria. It returned to fighting in China at the end of the '30s: the Nanking Massacre, when Japanese forces that had overrun the then Chinese capital of Nanking raped and massacred thousands of Chinese civilians, occurred in 1937. In retrospect, these paintings look like the calm at the eye of the storm.

"Journeys East," at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, offers a different look at Asia. Mrs. Gardner spent 1883 touring Japan, China, Cambodia, and India; then she returned home to become a pioneering collector of Asian art. She displayed her treasures in a temple-like room in the museum that wasn't open to the public and that was disassembled in 1971.

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