The Age of Edo

A new exhibition illuminates one of the richest eras in the history of Japanese art

From the early 17th century into the second half of the 19th, Tokugawa shoguns, or feudal overlords, ruled Japan from the garrison city of Edo — now called Tokyo. Under the Tokugawa dynasty, Japan enjoyed the longest period of stability and internal peace it has ever known. During this epoch, the patronage and practice of the civilian arts — painting, poetry, calligraphy, theater — flourished. New styles of artistic expression appeared throughout the country — elaborate screen paintings and scrolls, elegant ceramics and lacquerware, bold textiles and color wood-block prints, dramatic sculpture and armor — and a vibrant popular culture emerged. "By the 18th century," writes Kenneth Baker, "the population of Edo had grown to one million, making it the largest city in the world, with an influence so profound that its name came to denote the culture of all Japan."

The magnificent exhibition "Edo: Art in Japan 1615-1868," on view at the National Gallery of Art from November 15 through February 15, 1999, traces the era when Edo became Japan's seat of power and demonstrates how traditional symbols and new design ideas collided across the whole spectrum of material culture. In the world represented by the art assembled in this show, we can also recognize the early stirrings of modern life in Japan: different strata of society mixing as never before; newly centralized political power; business gaining in prestige and social impact; the reorientation of the whole society toward its cities; and good design filtering into every level of material culture.

Organized in conjunction with the Japan Foundation and Japan's Agency for Cultural Affairs, the Bunkacho, and sponsored by NTT (Nippon Telegraph and Telephone), the exhibition features some 300 masterpieces, including a number of works that have been designated as National Treasures by the government of Japan. The exhibition is a two-part event because so many of the objects are light-sensitive. The major rotation of objects will take place in early January.

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