Art at Play : An exhibit at LACMA examines the complex contribution play has made to the arts of Japan, particularly during the Edo period

Patricia Ward Biederman is a Times staff writer

Children pursue their pleasure with the seriousness of soldiers. They know that play is as important as anything in life.

In Japan, play is not only important, it is recognized as a vital part of cultural expression.

That is the underlying premise of "Asobi: Play in the Arts of Japan," the first American exhibit to examine the complex contribution play has made to the myriad arts of Japan, particularly during the Edo period (1615-1868).

Organized by Christine Guth for the Katonah Museum of Art in Katonah, N.Y., the show opens Thursday at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

As Robert T. Singer, LACMA's curator of Japanese art, explains, the Japanese word asobi can mean many things relating to play, including a playful heart, games, sex, goofing off, love of music, even doing one's best. Many of these meanings are reflected in the 75 works chosen for the exhibit, which documents everything from sumo wrestling and other forms of amusement popular in Japan to works that appear to be made from something they are not.

Singer says that some of his favorite pieces in the exhibit, which includes several works that the museum hopes to acquire, are those that involve wordplay. The Japanese appreciate the power of the word, Singer says, and they use language with a precision that is very different from America's casual slinging of words. "In Japan, you say things very carefully."

As an example, he points to a set of three woodblock prints by artist Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1797-1861) that show children playing with the Japanese word for treasure . In the central panel the brightly robed youngsters are climbing on the character as if it were a jungle gym. The side panels show children hauling elements of the character toward the fun going on in the center.

According to Singer, the work plays off the architectural quality of the characters in which the traditional form of Japanese language is written. A Japanese character is "built" out of component elements. And, as Singer notes, the work is a wonderful visual pun since children are the great treasure of Japanese life.

Another work that plays with language is a pair of hanging scrolls by Kitamuki Unchiku (1632-1703). Unchiku's piece deals with the ancient Chinese and Japanese theme of the tiger and the dragon. But instead of painting a picture of the beasts, Unchiku fills his scrolls with a bold rendering in black ink of the characters that mean tiger and dragon. The character for tiger has a final vertical stroke that hangs down like a tiger's tail. The character for dragon seems to undulate on its scroll. Viewers at the time the work was drawn, knowledgeable about their cultural past, would have been immediately struck by the resemblance of the characters to traditional paintings of the creatures.

There are other elements of play in the work as well, Singer points out. Traditionally, the tiger is painted in a stand of bamboo and the dragon is shown among the clouds. Unchiku's name combines the characters for bamboo and clouds. "It's probably one of the reasons he wanted to do it," Singer says of the work, which combines level upon level of play.

Guth traces the Japanese respect for play to religious origins. Many forms of play in Japan have their roots in Shinto ritual, she says. "There is also a long tradition in Zen Buddhism of play as a way of releasing tension and as a metaphor for enlightenment."

Parody is one of the playful elements in much of the work of the Edo period, Singer says. This was the time of the shoguns, who attempted to control every aspect of society. Japan had a strict social hierarchy, with the warrior class at the top and the merchant class at the bottom of respectable society. But while the merchant class had little social clout, it had enormous assets. Whole schools of artists were supported by the merchant class, Singer says, and their work often subverted the social order in ways sufficiently subtle to get around strict censorship laws and other social restrictions.

One gorgeous example is a hanging scroll by Nishiyama Kan'ei (1833-1887). The subject is a procession of the kind that the rulers of Japan regularly imposed on their aristocratic subjects, forcing them to bring their entire households to the capital for part of the year. The processions allowed the shogun to limit the power of potential rivals, in part, by keeping them poor. But instead of showing a human procession, the artist shows an orderly stream of insects, each wing and antenna meticulously detailed, as the tiny creatures trudge off to do their duty to the demanding master of their insect universe.

Buddhism was another favorite target of Edo satirists, Singer says. Buddhist priests were expected to be chaste. But there was a saying that if you threw a stone in the pleasure quarters of Edo Japan, you would hit a Buddhist priest. (They often wore hats to hide their shaved heads while out on the town). Thus, one hanging scroll from the early 18th Century shows a courtesan and Daruma, the founder of Zen Buddhism. The prostitute and the holy man are wearing each other's clothes.

The pleasure quarters, or "the floating world," fascinated and inspired Japanese society, Singer says. Courtesans and actors had enormous influence on their social superiors in matters of style. As it often does today, fashion trickled up, he notes.

To try to limit the influence of these raffish arbiters of taste, the government forbid artists to identify popular denizens of the floating world by name. But artists often tested the limits of the ban by doing instantly recognizable portraits of favorites. In a woodblock print from about 1848, Kuniyoshi used what can only be described as a graffiti style to depict faces of popular actors from the Kabuki theater.

Kuniyoshi also created the woodblock print, titled "Composite Head ('At first he looks fierce but he's really a nice man')." Inspired by Italian mannerist work of the 16th Century, what looks at first like the face of a scowling man is an illusion created from a number of male figures.

Because the piece dates from the mid-19th Century, when publicizing specific actors was forbidden, Christine Guth speculates that the piece refers to the ban. Such anti-authoritarian readings of Edo period art are extremely popular right now. But Singer wonders if artists like Kuniyoshi necessarily had rebellion on their minds when they sat down to work. Maybe they were just having fun.

The exhibit continues through May 30 at Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 5905 Wilshire Blvd. Hours: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesdays-Thursdays, 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Fridays and 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Admission: $6 general, $4 students and seniors. Call (213) 857-6000.

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