Maruyama Okyo (1733-1795)
Japan, Edo period, 18th century
Six-panel folding screen; ink and gold leaf on paper
Purchase - Bequest of Edith Ehrman F1983.10
Art tells us a lot about what is important to a particular society. If you have read my previous blog post on Ancient Egypt you would know the importance they placed on the color blue, the Nile River and plants and animals that came from the Nile. The Nile provided their livelihood and sustenance. Therefore, it was not surprising to see that all types of items, whether used in daily life or strictly in ceremony, featured Nile imagery. In this way, Japanese and Egyptian art share similarities. Currently on display until September 14th at the Freer Gallery is an exhibit titled Bountiful Waters: Aquatic Life in Japanese Art and it is clear that Japanese culture place significant social importance on fish, crustaceans and all the different types of bodies of water. This makes perfect sense given that they are an island nation.
First and foremost, each of the works on display is incredibly detailed. A very diverse set of colors and amazing shading techniques are used. Some of the fish look so detailed that the artists must have studied their subjects extensively. Almost every fish is drawn in detail down to its last scale. Much of the beauty of these works lies in their simplicity. Some are as humble as a fish swimming in the river and no more than half of a foot large. Even the largest item on display is simple: a scene of fish swimming in a pond accented in gold leaf. The longer I looked at it, the more real it became and when the light hits the accents certain ways it creates the sense of movement.
Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849)
Japan, Edo period, 1825-30
Hanging scroll; ink and color on silk
Gift of Charles Lang Freer F1902.254
Not only did water provide the major source sustenance for the Japanese, but it also provided a source of spiritual inspiration. One work depicting two eels and a shrimp “symbolized fast, rocket-like rise in status.” Another depicting Tai (sea bream) was used at wedding ceremonies and ceremonial offerings because that is what the fish was associated with in their culture. But fish were not only used as symbols; they were also used in daily life. Certain types of fish were associated with certain seasons and plates (on display at the exhibit) were decorated accordingly. These acted almost as placeholders of tradition, one used certain plates for certain times and reasons. It could almost be considered a very basic calendar.
My personal take away from this exhibit was how different eastern art can be from western art. Now, this could completely be me not looking in the correct places, but I get a sense that eastern art tends to focus on immediate surroundings and what the natural world provides for that society while western art is very subject driven.