Natsu: A Japanese Summer
Following their comprehensive exhibition of Japanese screens this past spring, Scholten Japanese Art moves into summer with a timely exhibition entitled Natsu: A Japanese Summer. As the ever-changing moods and views of all four seasons are very important in Japan-- each resonating with its own special traditions and iconography, summer (or in Japanese natsu) is typically meaningful. While the importance of spring and cherry blossom viewing is well recognized in the West, perhaps less understood are the various feelings and images associated with summer in Japan.
A welcomed change from the rainy season of spring, summer is characterized by hot (atsui) days and cool (suzushi) nights. Traditionally, many devises are used to counteract the hot summer. In addition to the typical Japanese folding fan (sensu), a flat circular fan (uchiwa) is associated with the summer. Dress changed from the many layered kimono to the airy yukata, a light cotton robe which is often somewhat diaphanous. Woodblock print artists (from the classical period of the 18th century up to the 20th century) were inspired by the suggestive nature of this garment, often displaying great technical skill in capturing the contours of a woman's figure within the light and dark folds of the nearly transparent yukata. The early 20th century (shin-hanga lit. new prints) artists seemed particularly enchanted with the decorative quality of the yukata: a print by Kobayakawa Kiyoshi (1889-1948) provides an arresting look at a women dressed in yukata. Entitled After a Bath (c. 1934), the print captures the moment in which the women has just gotten out of the bath and is dressed in a yukata. In this portrait, taken from a back view, the garment displays a generous view of her neck (considered a very sensual part of the body in Japanese culture), presumably in an attempt to cool her self. As she pats her face with a towel, her gaze rests on the viewer. While this print portrays quite a languid view of a beauty, other prints offer more typically cooling images. A collection of prints by Ito Shinsui (1898-1972), one of the most important artists of the shin-hanga movement, provides the viewer an opportunity to view women enjoying a number of summer pastimes: hanging a paper lantern, digging seashells, catching fireflies, and simply enjoying the cool of evening.
Summer in Japan marks the time for the hanabi matsuri, or fireworks festival. Typically taking place next to a river, the fireworks create a beautiful image both in the air and reflected in the water. A similar theme is touched upon in a print by Toyohara Kunichika (1835-1900), which takes its inspiration from the "Flares" chapter of The Tale of Genji (an often-referenced 11th century novel considered a classic of Japanese literature). In this episode, Genji sees flares and is thus inspired to write a poem that compares his love to an inextinguishable flare. In Kunichika's rendition, the flares resemble fireworks that illuminate the upper left hand portion of the print, while a boating party is shown in the right foreground.
Besides the practical employment of fans or cooling water, other more imaginative attempts to counteract the hot summer were used. In Japan today the sound of wind chimes in the summer is believed to induce a cooling affect, while horror movies are associated with the summer as they are thought to produce a chill in the viewer. Though a seemingly modern convention, this phenomenon of summer horror can actually be traced back to the traditional Japanese practice of telling ghost stories during the summer months, for the same reasons. Quite different from the prints of women in yukata is an eerie portrayal of a female ghost by the female artist Uemura Shoen (1875-1949). The silhouette of the ghost in a vague white outline contrasts against a somber background of dark gray and black tones. We can see her mouth open slightly as she holds a heavy sword close to her body. Bountiful specks of white representing snow add further to the chilling scene that this portrait represents.
In addition to a selection of prints, the exhibition displays numerous examples of fine lacquerware with depictions of fans and waves; finely carved netsuke (toggles), representing various sea animals or water scenes; similarly decorated inro (seal or medicine cases); and textiles such as a lovely diaphanous robe decorated with irises.
Scholten Japanese Art invites you to view a collection of works that depict the summer season through either representation of typical clothing and activities, or by association through the relatively cooling aspects of fans and water. Perhaps just as the Japanese could be cooled by the power of the imagination, the sight of a lovely young woman in summer yukata will provide a similar antidote to the New York summer.
The summer exhibition opens June 1, 2001 and continues until August 15, 2001. Scholten Japanese Art is open Monday through Friday 11am to 5pm, by appointment. To schedule an appointment please call 212.585.0474.