Oh, to live on one of the 17th-century Japanese screens in the Freer Gallery of Art's "Landscapes and Famous Places" exhibit.
To stroll through the screen called "Cherry Blossom Time at Ueno Park," in the city of Edo (now Tokyo), the famous stronghold of the Tokugawa shoguns and their daimyo, or warrior nobles. To contemplate its traditional Japanese artistic elements of trees, mountains, rivers, roofs and people. To join in celebrations under the canopies of flowering trees. And to feel the white and empty spaces on the screen filled with peace and the sweet scents of spring.
A woman and the little boy on her lap admire the day from their palanquin, made like a little house. A fashion parade saunters through the gentle landscape: women in elaborate, flower-patterned kimonos; samurai with swords, some wearing culottes; and male bearers in short kimonos and diaper-style pants carrying the picnic box hobo-style on a stick.
Picnics (mostly serving sake or tea) are the invitation of the day. Grand ladies unfold screens to make private outdoor rooms for their guests. A rug and a canvas fence furnish the picnic for a man who has left his sandals elsewhere. He receives sake in an enormous cup, from a kneeling woman in an elaborate kimono. A man with a sword but no shoes watches to see just how much sake his friend will drink.
The steeply roofed buildings are so elaborately drawn, you could construct your own garden house from them. A cistern collects water on one roof, perhaps in case of fire. The gate has its own roof and a constant traffic below of people wearing great hats and carrying umbrellas.
In the companion screen, also by Hishikawa Moronobu (died 1694), autumn comes to Asakusa and its Sensoji temple, dedicated to the Buddhist deity Kannon. Vendors put out their temptations, a geomancer lifts a corner of the veil of the future, pleasure boats float down the Sumida River, and eager pleasure seekers disembark to the entertainment house docks. Inside one of the houses, the geisha girls play their elaborate roles.
The six pairs of screens, just installed in the Freer's screen gallery, represent curator Ann Yonemura's selection from the Freer's choice collection of 200 Japanese screens. (This group will be up through July 15).
Specific places and times are represented in three pairs of the screens. Other sets of panels are landscapes that represent idealized scenes. Two pairs are by the Nonga scholar painters in the Chinese manner, not real landscapes, but scenes of the intellect, using a single tree or mountain to represent their impressions of all trees or mountains. Painter Yosa Buson described his satin-covered screen, "Fishing on a River After Rain," in a verse:
A fresh breeze sweeps the grass after rain has ceased;
The river glows in the setting sun and fish draw near to men.
The screen and its companion, "Willow Bank on a Clear Evening," were both painted in 1764 in the Edo period.
"Uji Bridge," an anonymous painting from the 1573-1615 Momoyama period, is the sort that influenced James Whistler, especially in his "Peacock Room" at the other end of the Freer. The background is made up of small squares of gold leaf, overpainted with ink and color. The dark willow trees against the rich gold are a spectacle hard to forget. The moon that floats above the scene is silvered copper, pegged in. Yonemura says the scene was so well known in stories and poems that it was instantly recognizable.
Gallery Two (through July 15) shows more Nanga painters. In "One Hundred Old Men Gathering for Drinking" by Ikeno Taiga (1723-1776), a crowd sifts through to the potable, like sand in an hourglass. The great shrines and destinations are also depicted on a fan and a box, among other small objects.
Another group of screens, paintings and woodblock pictures of Meisho-e is installed in Gallery One across the way (only through Feb. 9). The Don't-Miss is an enormous screen, "Views In and Around Kyoto," showing the seasons and the festivals of 17th-century Kyoto: bow makers, sword fabricators, festivals for blossoms, memorials to gods.
In a gallery next door (through August), curator Louise Allison Cort has put together what she believes is the first exhibit of ceramics made by and for the daimyo, the baronial lords of the Edo period.
As a device to reduce their feudal power, the daimyo were required to live alternate years at Edo, paying court to the shogunate. In the Textile Museum's current fukusa (gift covers) exhibition, the point is made that daimyo were expected to give elaborate presents to their liege lord when they came and when they left.
The correct way was to give objects in a style recognizable as distinctive to their family and marked with their own crests. So the daimyo set up (as a division of commercial kilns) official or family kilns called goyogama on their han or domains, to make ceramics of very fine quality and design limited to the use of the owners. Because tea parties were the standard way of entertaining, most of the ceramics are ceremonial tea utensils. The Nabeshima porcelain, made in the second half of the 17th century in an area rich in kaolin (essential for porcelain), is especially colorful: A small dish uses an Indian chintz design, another is shaped like a cherry blossom spray.
In Washington, with snow in the air if not actually on the ground, the Freer's visions of cherry blossoms and willows are a panacea.