The Secrets of EDO


Wisteria By by Maruyama Ōkyo

Pair of six-panel screens; ink and color on gold-foiled paper
Japan Edo period, dated 1776, Nezu Museum

Reproduced with special permission from the Nezu Museum, Tokyo..

Nezu Tokyo

Wisteria By Maruyama Ōkyo

Wisteria (right screen) by Maruyama Ōkyo – Ink and color on gold-foiled paper – 18th century, Edo Period, Japan [NEZU Museum, Tokyo]

The surreal and lyrical Wisteria blossoms and vines by Maruyama Ōkyo [1733-1795], is deemed an important cultural property of Japan. The work of art reflects the deep connection that the people of Japanese harbor and the inspirations they draw, from nature.

Born in Kyoto, Ōkyo was deeply influenced by Chinese as well as Dutch artistic traditions and imbibed techniques therefrom, in his creations. He developed the megane-e perspective of developing paintings or prints. These painting when viewed through a peep box (nozori karakuri in Japanese) or Dutch glasses (Oranda megane in Japanese), a lens and mirror contraption, created a three-dimensional effect. Perhaps, Ōkyo became enamored by this ingenious European contraption during the time he spent working in a toy shop in Kyoto. At that time, during the sakoku, or Japan’s deliberative isolation form the rest of the world, the only official connection that Japan had with the external world was through the Dutch VOC trading company, or the Dutch East India Trading Company, located at the Dejima Island in Nagasaki bay.

Japanese artwork, subjects, and artistic and aesthetic traditions profoundly influenced European and Indian artists. Claude’s Monet’s famous painting of a curved wooden Japanese bridge over a pond of water lilies, with drooping wisterias in the backdrop, an idyllic scenery from the painter’s home in Giverny, near Paris, bears testimony to the this influence.

Rabindranath Tagore, himself, was profoundly impacted by Japanese artistic traditions. Tagore was particularly enamored by a painting from a famous Noh drama: Yoroboshi (The Blind Beggar) by Shimomura Kaizan [1873-1930]. The forlorn image of an old beggar in the painting, evoked deep emotions, pathos, and a profound sense of appreciation for the aesthetic use of empty spaces (yūgen in Japanese) in the poet (Inaga, 2009). The concept of yūgen stands in stark contrast to the Aristotelian aesthetic principle of horror vacui (the fear of empty spaces) endemic to European art. Many such effects and artistic traditions can be found in the Bengal School of art, and in the works of pioneers like Nandalal Bose, among others.