by Roderick Conway Morris

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Edo-Tokyo Museum, Tokyo
The Plains of Musashino, six-part screen by an unknown artist, 17th century

From Prehistoric Pottery to the Coming of the Camera

By Roderick Conway Morris
ROME 9 December 1995


No sophisticated urban culture on earth has such strong and self-conscious links with its prehistoric roots as that of Japan. The mystical delight, for example, in the cherry-blossom season, the almost animistic reverence for wood, the passionate consumption of raw river and sea foods, hark back along with innumerable other Japanese traditions to that era of at least 10,000 years when the inhabitants of the archipelago led an unchanging existence as hunters, gatherers and fishermen.

The constant awareness of the primitive past is reflected again and again in the unfolding of Japanese art, which, despite being subjectat times to seemingly overwhelming influences from China, Korea and later the West, remained stubbornly distinctive and infused with its own particular genius.

Italy has significant holdings of Japanese art, notably at the Venice and Genoa museums of Oriental art. The core of both institutions, however, derives from the efforts of two energetic 19th-century collectors, Enrico di Borbone and Eduardo Chiossone respectively, and consist almost entirely of works from the Edo period (1603-1868).

It is, therefore, especially welcome that the present major loan show (the first here for more than35 years), 'Japan Before the West: 4,000 Years of Art and Religion' (at the Palazzo delle Esposizioni until Jan. 15), whichforms the centerpiece of the Japan in Italy '95-'96 festival (which also includes drama, concerts, films and other events), should be devoted entirely to the time before the first Europeans set foot in Japan in 1543.

Of 160 pieces on display, 12 are designated 'national treasures' and 70 'important cultural properties.' They present a tour d'horizon of four millennia and offer a rare opportunity to follow through the key developments in Japanese ceramics, metalwork, sculpture and painting from prehistory into the 16th century.

Among the most ancient - possibly the most ancient - ceramics known so far have been discovered in Japan, and indeed Jomon ('cord-marked') pottery has given its name to the period from around about 10,000 B.C. until the introduction of rice and millet farming in the thirdcentury B.C. A series of already artfully decorated, prehistoric dogu anthropomorphic figures open the show, complete examples of which are very rare since they were smashed as part of the obscure ritual for which they were made. These are followed by a beautiful pair of dotaku, bronze bells from the Yayoi era after the dawn of settled agriculture, whose use, since they seem to have been buried in remote places, is equally mysterious; and intriguing human and animal figures from the Kofun ('great tombs') period between the fourth and sixth centuries.

The epoch from the arrival of Buddhism in the sixthcentury is richly covered by a superb variety of statues in wood, bronze and lacquer --Japanese sculpture being, indeed, almost wholly inspired by Buddhism (and to a lesser extent Shintoism) into modern times. The pièces de résistance in this area, in terms of sheer scale, are four dramatically ferocious 13th-century temple guardians, brilliantly carved in wood, eachstanding more than9 feet high.

In the later Ukiyo-e ('floating world') era, Japanese art came almost to revolve around the depiction of the gentler sex. But in these earlier epochs, apart from the ancient dogu figurines, which are predominantly female and connected in some way with fertility rites, feminine images in art are notable by their absence. Nonetheless, a lovely 12th-century painting on silk of the 'female Buddha' Hokekyo (almost certainly commissioned by a woman) riding a congenial-looking white elephant, reminds us that many of the leading intellectual luminaries from the ninth century onward were women (including Lady Murasaki, the author of the classic 11th-century novel 'The Tale of Genji').

The influence of Zen Buddhism and the close relations between Zen and the growth of realistic painted and sculpted portraiture are well demonstrated by a number of first-class works. The final parts of the exhibition comprise a section of ceramics spanning the eighth to the 15th centuries and marvelous illustrated scrolls and painted screens. The ceramics and screens in particular subtly lead us back to the beginning of the show again: even the latest pieces of pottery still striving to capture 'natural' colors and effects of light and texture, and the dazzling screens bringing indoors the great outdoors of mountain, forest, stream and teeming abundance of flora and fauna, flamboyantly but lovingly and minutely depicted, magically re-creating the virgin universe of the artists' hunter-gatherer ancestors.

Also at the Palazzo delle Esposizioni is a fascinating exhibition of more than one hundred 19th-century photographs of Japan in 'The Legend of an Empire: Felice Beato and the Yokohama School of Photography' (until March 4).

Tantalizingly little is known about the details of Beato's life. In fact, it has only recently been clarified that a phantom composite photographer dubbed 'Felice Antonio Beato' was in reality Felice and his brother Antonio.

Probably born in Venice, Felix Beato (as he was generally known) was naturalized British and had an adventurous career, much of it spent in the East. He was an epoch-makingwar photographer, taking the first known shots of human bodies (strewn across a battlefield at Lucknow in 1857 during the Indian Mutiny)and covering other violent actions in China and Korea.

At one point Beato teamed up with the English engraver and photographer James Robertson (who married his sister). In 1861 Beato reached Japan, which had been closed to foreigners from 1639 till 1853, and was at the British Legation in Tokyo when it was attacked by a xenophobic mob. Beato settled in Yokohama, founding a studio there with the Illustrated London News reporter and artist Charles Wirgman: Beato & Wirgman, Artists and Photographers.

This duo gathered around them several foreign and Japanese practitioners, including Kusakabe Kimbei, the Italian Adolfo Farsariand the Austrian officer Baron von Stillfried, who took over the business in 1877 (Beato finally leaving Japan in 1884, dying at an unknown place and date, by that time, apparently, a dealer in Burmese antiques and bamboo furniture).

The oddball Yokohama School was talented, committed and full of curiosity, and amongthem the'members' made a unique record of a Japan that was at a critical moment of change as the country begun to be opened up to the West after more than200 years of 'the Isolation.'

Almost every conceivable facet of Japanese life and landscape was recorded, from geishas, umbrella makers, sumo wrestlers and samurai to Mount Fuji, bamboo groves, teahouses, sea caves and temples. The technical quality of the pictures is admirable and the scenes of a world where the presence of a photographer sometimes seems wildly anachronistic consistently vivid and absorbing.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023