There are 29 robes, 10 masks, eight obi, and two caps in "The Tokugawa Collection: No Robes and Masks," which opened yesterday at the National Gallery of Art. It is not a large exhibit, except by implication. It suggests a world of art far broader than that conjured here by most museum shows.
Most museums in this city equate the beautiful with paintings, and in doing so severely edit the history of art. We see paintings from old churches, but not sunlight through stained glass. We see the tomb provisions of the late King Tut, but we are left to guess at the talents of his dancers, his musicians and his cooks.
The No show is far more than a costume exhibition. The movies and the slide shows displayed in its two theaters, its architectural models, its brief recorded lectures, even the carpentry of its cases, combine to give the visitor a glimpse of the continuum that is the culture of Japan.
Mime, dance, poetry, instrumental music, gardening, architecture, song, even ritualized sport - it is the subtle intertwining of these many arts, not just the objects shown, that one remembers from this show.
The robes themselves are dazzling. Nowhere on th street outside does one see such colors or such patterns or such fine brocading of silk threads wound with gold. One leaves this show embarrassed by the contents of one's closet, and then, again, embarrassed by the crassness of the thought.
The masters of the No - the carvers and the weavers, who produced five centimeters of cloth a day, the actors and musicians - were, as were their patrons, enemies of ostentation. In No plays all is slow, considered, ritualized and solemn. The evocation of a mood, the shared experience of that meditative trance that the Japanese describe as "arresting subtlety" is the ideal of the art.
So successful are the films, the slides, the installation, that one begins to see such rituals of beauty in the woven cloth.
One robe on display is made of safflower dyed scarlet silk into which are woven golden willow branches and white "kemari" balls. For those who saw it worn, this exquisite garment conjured a place, a time, a garden, and gentlemen at play.
"Kemari" is a football game, subtler than most. It has no winners, losers, time limit, or points (attributes it shares with frisbee.) The court is marked, at its four corners, by a cherry tree to the southeast, a maple in the southwest, pine and bamboo in the northwest, and willow in hte northeast. The ball is made of doeskin - it took one man one year to make a fine "kemari" ball. The players, who kicked the ball between them, tried to keep it in the air as long as possible. The robe suggests the Heian period (794-1185), the style of the court, and the record (300 kicks) that was set in the 9th century, with the Emperor in attendance.
The visual information that we pack into stage sets was contained in the robes No actors were in plays.
The actions of the actors, the choreographed, traditional movements of their feet, the thythms of their chanting - and the memory of long-dead gentlemen at play - are woven by that robe into a seamless web of esthetic evocation.
It took 10 Gallery carpenters five weeks to construct the wooden cases in which the No robes are displayed. Each plank of pine they used (the traditional cypress was unavailable) was selected with great care. The details of their carpentry closely follow those of the No theaters of Japan.
Because the Tokugawa robes are not to be displayed more than two weeks in a year, the exhibits will be changed three times during the six weeks of the show. (Because the exhibition will travel to Texas and New York, and the robes will be shown there as well, they will not be shown for three years after returning to Japan.)
"No," by the way, means "talent" or "accomplishment." Few who see the exhibition will fully understand No's measured moods and references, but none will miss the beauty, the talent and accomplishment, that produced this show. It was organized by the Japan Society of New York. The Coca-Cola Co., Atlanta, and its bottlers in Japan, helped pay for the exhibition, which closes here May 22.