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Saturday, Feb. 17, 2001


Ukiyo-e treasures make brief return

The Baur Collection of ukiyo-e woodcuts by several of Japan's top masters is this country's own version of the Elgin Marbles. Perhaps this is why the 200 works are only on display so briefly. If you want to see these excellent examples of print art in their homeland, you have only a short time.

"Ichikawa Koraizo III as Shiga Daishichi," by Toshusai Sharaku, 1794

After leaving Tokyo today, the prints depart for a one-month stay at the Tokoha Museum in Kikunuma, Shizuoka Prefecture, before being spirited back to their hideaway amid the snows of the Swiss Alps in the museum established by the businessman and collector Alfred Baur (1865-1951) shortly before his death.

The Japanese must have mixed feelings about such an extensive collection being built up by a foreigner during their country's less prosperous years. Mixed with a certain resentment, there must be some guilt over the neglect of native masterpieces, perhaps allayed with a sense of gratification that the works were so appreciated overseas.

There are many excellent pieces here that must have given a very favorable impression of Japan to the select circle of Herr Baur's friends who were allowed to view them. Torii Kiyonaga's "Child Writing Calligraphy" (in print 1783-4) is an excellent work that uses hanging kanji scrolls of various sizes to create an impression of depth. It must have helped foster an image of a deeply cultured land. Chobunsai Eishi's elegant triptych "Festive Dinner at a Mansion" (1789-1801), meanwhile, would have attested to the sophistication of the Japanese in the Edo Period.

The overall impression of the collection is its great eclecticism. There are portraits by Toshusai Sharaku, landscapes by Utagawa Hiroshige, waterfalls by Keisai Eisen, scenes from peasant life, pictures depicting the pastimes of the leisured classes and even scenes from bathhouses.

One reason for this variety is that the collection was pieced together over a period exceeding 40 years through the assistance of a Japan- based British journalist, T.B. Blow, and a Japanese dealer, K. Tomita.

With their highly stylized glimpses of an exotic world and their beautiful curvilinear shapes and rich detail, ukiyo-e may have given Europeans an impression of grace and gentility, but in their own land they were actually refreshingly lowbrow, aimed at the common man. Accordingly, the more skilled ukiyo-e masters crammed their works with all manner of visual fireworks.

Notable features of the exhibition are the triptychs, most of which are early impressions in excellent condition. There is Utagawa Kuniyoshi's surreal and macabre "Apparition of a Skeleton" (1830-44), a nightmare vision of a giant bony specter breaking up a fight between two samurai.

A popular theme for these triptychs is interrelated portraits of elegant ladies exposed to the vagaries of the weather. "Three Ladies Waiting in Heavy Rain" (1848-54), also by Kuniyoshi, subjects three ladies to a torrential downpour as they shelter under lacquered paper umbrellas, while Keisai Eisen's "Three Women Walking in a Storm" (1830-44) has the victims caught in a sudden gust of wind on a spring night. As their garments billow around them, they perch precariously on geta in a blizzard of cherry blossoms.

Taking mischievous delight both in the discomfort and beauty of their subjects, these works show a wonderful sense of humor, and it is this quality that strikes the keynote of this extremely varied collection.

The kabuki-actor portraits, such as Sharaku's "Ichikawa Koraizo III as Shiga Daishichi" (translated as "Man With His Hand on His Sword"), often show the characteristic crossed-eye expression of the mie pose, intended to convey intense emotion. To the modern foreign eye, the impact may be more comic than impassioned, though.

With works by 36 different artists, this is perhaps a crowded and bewildering exhibition. But, oddly, it is this confusion that helps so successfully to re-create some of the hustle and bustle of Edo Period Japan.

"The First Ukiyo-e Exhibition From the Baur Collection, Switzerland" closes today at the Odakyu Museum, Odakyu department store, Main Building 11F, (03) 5325-2326. Open 10 a.m.-7:30 p.m. Admission 800 yen for adults, 600 yen for students. Feb. 24-March 25 (except Thursdays) at Tokoha Museum, Kikugawa, Shizuoka Prefecture, (0537) 35-0775.

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