December 3, 2008

Johnson Exhibit Examines Flirty Japanese Art Form

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While collegiate flirting usually consists of recycled Comedy Central jokes and (barely) politically correct comments about our less-than-perfect friends and lovers, the Japanese literati of the Edo period wooed one another with art and poetry. On exhibit this week at the Johnson Museum of Art is Colored in the New Year’s Light, a show featuring Japanese surimono — color wood block prints produced as holiday tokens. Surimono were traditionally commissioned by poetry societies; they were distributed at New Year’s as gifts of love or friendship. Rather than that drunken text message at midnight we’ve all sent and received, the ancient Japanese cognoscenti sent one another delicate images of fish, elegantly clad women and mythical beasts by the ocean side.
Everything about these works is delicate and subtle, from the craftsmanship of the embossed-and-colored papers to the sly trickery of the accompanying writing. One piece features a poem in calligraphy that translates to: “He visits often enough to make one intoxicated: The breezes blown by the flowery fan of the cherry blossom of the night, so soft.” The secret of the image — courtesans at the time were referred to by names of fans — suggests that the two elegantly dressed women in the print are less fragile than the metaphorical cherry blossom. In the translated text that accompanies all the images, there’s always word play, puns and inferences that eclipse a casual modern reading. Rather than the oh-so-attractive drunken rendition of “I’m In Love With A Stripper” on College Ave., these artists offer poems that flatter the swallow — a bird known for its playfulness — to infer promiscuity.
Though the exhibit is seemingly more sophisticated than the social interactions that happen today, it’s still accessible because of the similarities between everyday life in 18th century Japan and modern life in the States.
The prints frequently feature scenes from everyday life. While the clothing and settings of the drawings seem alien (many layers of kimonos, or the red painted flesh of demons) the casual objects could have come from any American household. One surimono is about the sharpness of a knife; the print shows the blade alongside rice and a large vegetable. Another is a delicately bottle — possible a snuff bottle or a perfume vial, which seems anachronistically familiar.
The themes of the prints are also very modern; Hokusai (a better known artist whose works are on display) is also famous for a wood-cut of a woman having sex with an octopus. In one of the surimono on display, “Gathering the Bounty of the Sea at Ebb Tide,” a woman plays in shallow water with her calves revealed from under many layers of fancy dress; a small octopus is shown gingerly clinging on to legs. The print is no doubt highly sexual, and yet not pornographic.
Colored in the New Year’s Light is a small glimpse into a world of poetry and flirtation more precise than ours; regardless, the art remains accessible and romantic for the rest of us stuck with late night Facebook chat and incoherent text messaging.