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Exhibition: Baur Collection

Ukiyo-e treasures make brief return

The Baur Collection of ukiyo-e 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 only have until tomorrow to get down to the Odakyu Museum. After that they will be 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, foreign-owned collection built up when their country was a lot poorer than today. Mixed with a certain resentment, there must be some guilt over the neglect of native masterpieces, probably allayed with a sense of gratification that the works were so well appreciated overseas.

There are many excellent pieces here which must have given a very favorable impression of Japan to the select circle of Herr Baur's friends allowed to view them. Kiyonaga Torii'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. This must have helped foster an image of Japan as a deeply cultured land, while Eishi Chohbunsai’s elegant triptych, Festive Dinner at a Mansion (1789-1801), 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 Sharaku Tohshuhsai, landscapes by Hiroshige Utagawa, waterfalls by Eisen Keisai, scenes from peasant life, pictures depicting the pastimes of the leisured classes, and even scenes from bath houses. 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 low-brow works of art, aimed at the common man. Accordingly, the more skilled ukiyo-e masters crammed their works with all manner of visual fireworks

One of the notable features of the exhibition are the triptychs, most of which are early impressions in excellent condition. There is Kuniyoshi Utagawa'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 more popular theme for these triptychs are interrelated portraits of elegant ladies exposed to the vagaries of the weather. Three Ladies Waiting in Heavy Rain (1848-54), also by Kuniyoshi Utagawa, subjects three ladies to a torrential downpour as they shelter under flimsy paper umbrellas, while Eisen Keisai’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 (wooden platform shoes) 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 which strikes the keynote of this extremely varied collection. The use of misaligned eyeballs, either converging or diverging, in many of the portraits creates an instantly hilarious effect. This is seen in Sharaku Tohshuhsai’s Man with his hand on his Sword (1794). But perhaps an even more potent use of this simple device is found in the several excellent portraits by Toyokuni Utagawa, such as his Actor in a Butterfly Kimono (1799).

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 recreate some of the hustle and bustle of Edo period Japan.

The First Ukiyo-e Exhibition from the Baur Collection, Switzerland runs until 18th February, 2001, at the Odakyu Museum

Japan Times
17th February, 2001
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