By Kai Curry
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
Seattle Asian Art Museum (SAM Asian) never fails to impress and “Renegade Edo and Paris: Japanese Prints and Toulouse-Lautrec” (“Renegade Edo”), running until Dec. 3, is no exception.
I confess, on the way to the exhibition, I thought, isn’t the connection between Edo period Japanese art (1603–1868) and 19th century European art a bit overdone? I gave a healthy benefit of the doubt, though, to Xiaojin Wu (formerly at SAM Asian; now Luther W. Brady Curator of Japanese Art at the Philadelphia Museum of Art) as she has also never disappointed.
“Renegade Edo” was the last show Wu, a huge part of the museum’s reimagining and reopening in 2020, curated for SAM Asian. As hoped, Wu provided new ways of approaching this highly influential art period. In small rooms artfully laid out, Edo woodblock prints of the floating world (ukiyo-e) are displayed alongside some of Europe’s first poster art. As in Japan, graphic arts were used to advertise entertainment venues—both above ground and below, so to speak, as brothel life was a popular topic in both countries at the time, be it geishas or common prostitutes.
“Both [countries] were…facing a multitude of challenges to the status quo. In Edo [modern-day Tokyo], townspeople pursued hedonistic lifestyles as a way of defying the state-sanctioned social hierarchy that positioned them at the bottom,” says the exhibition’s introductory text.
Thus the title. These Japanese artists, and similarly those influenced by them in Europe, were “renegades,” “rebels,” “innovators,” and I’ll stop before this turns into an X Ambassadors song.
When I heard about this exhibition, I was thrilled at the opportunity to view works of famous Japanese Edo artists, such as Utagawa Hiroshige, Katsushika Hokusai, and Kitagawa Utamaro here in Seattle, but I also wondered, what about the influence of Edo art on Asian artists? There are descendants of this “renegade” period of Japanese art right here in Seattle. These artists, of whom the Weekly spoke to but a tiny percentage, enthusiastically acknowledge a strong link.
“Edo is my ‘back to the future’ period in Japan,” said Akiko (Aki) Sogabe, a Japanese American artist who has lived in the Pacific Northwest for more than 44 years, and who delights to this day in fusing Washington state and Edo Japan.
“The first day I saw Mount Rainier…[it] captured my heart and I started to create images of it right away.” Sogabe took it upon herself to create “whimsical themes from the Edo period” using “modern elements of cellphone usage, coffee drinking, etc.” Oftentimes, Sogabe’s figures are placed against a backdrop of Mount Rainier, the same way Hokusai famously depicted everyday scenes with Mount Fuji viewed from different angles. Amusingly, Sogabe clothes women in kimonos as if they were plucked from an Edo print, yet they hold their phones or are drinking coffee from portable containers—total Seattleites.
Several Edo artists produced landscape or cityscape-based series, and people-based, like Tsukioka Yoshitoshi’s “32 Aspects of Daily Life” (also called “32 Aspects of Women”). Japanese American artist Lauren Iida remembers being given a book of images by Yoshitoshi when she was a child.
“My family, because of the trauma of being incarcerated during World War II, didn’t…teach me about anything having to do with our Japanese cultural heritage, so it was always fascinating to me… I was captivated by the artistic decisions that the illustrators made and the artist made.”
Iida created a series of her own, “32 Aspects of Daily Life,” based on Yoshitoshi, but in her medium of paper cut-away, and with evidence of time spent in Cambodia.
“I researched all the different people in the portraits [by Yoshitoshi],” Iida explained, who then made connections “between each of those women and the female identifying people I did portraits of.” Iida works painstakingly by hand, and has been asked why she doesn’t use “modern” methods like laser cut or digital? Perhaps in this devotion to a traditional art form, Iida is a rebel. Also, Iida finds a link between the transience of paper and the floating world of Edo.
“Living only for the moment, savoring the moon, the snow, the cherry blossoms…diverting oneself just in floating…like a gourd carried along with the river current: this is what we call ukiyo,” says the quote by Edo writer Asai Ryōi on the wall at the “Renegade Edo” exhibition.
“The Edo period was a rich period in Japanese art and culture,” explained local artist Naoko Morisawa. “‘Japonisme’ (a passion for all things Japanese in France and beyond) boomed widely in the Edo Period.” This influence continued into the 20th century, such as with Pop Art, in its bold color, Morisawa went on. “The detailed work [of Edo] has influenced many artists [at an] international level.” Morisawa, too, has created art inspired from the Edo culture. *
“After coming to the U.S., as a Japanese person, I gained a renewed awareness of the history of Japan—kabuki, traditional patterns, and Edo culture—and collected these materials and books and studied them in my own way,” Morisawa told the Weekly. Morisawa’s works are made from wood, but not in the same way as a woodblock print. Nevertheless, the focus on nature, and the enjoyment of pattern and textile are evident and can be said to hearken back to Edo style, also called “iki,” meaning a penchant for subtle refinement.
“I hope that the viewer can freely interpret them,” Morisawa said, while noting that Edo Japan wasn’t all teahouses and cherry blossom viewing. Just as in Europe, tyranny of the status quo hampered quotidian and artistic life. Japan’s controls levied by the authorities were heavy; yet, “if you look at the lives of ordinary people, from the perspective of entertainment and art, there is an attraction that makes you want to live in a tasteful way.”
“I love that idea that things are here now, and they might not be visible later, but they’re always on some plane of existence,” said Iida, who sometimes lets the public destroy her art as part of the journey of the work, her own journey, and ours. “Things are beautiful, and these moments come and go, but it’s okay if they go away…They’ll come back again and…go away again.”
At SAM Asian’s “Renegade Edo,” I stood before a display demonstrating, at the top of the timeline, a series by an Edo woodblock print artist, then a series by a French graphic artist. There is a third piece of this chain in the art of Iida, for instance, and the same could be said for multiple works throughout this visually astounding, thought-provoking exhibition, some of whose artistic descendants live right here in Seattle.
Edo Japan has never lost its hold on us.
“If I could warp to the Edo period, I would be a female painter living in a tenement house in the lower town of Edo,” said Morisawa. “I want to live by drawing pictures, people, toys…from the floating era of Edo!”
Kai can be reached at [email protected].