Art of Edo Japan:
The Artist and the City 1615-1868

Christine Guth

Harry N. Abrams 1996
A book review by Danny Yee © 2005
Art of Edo Japan surveys artistic developments in Edo Japan, setting them in the context of economic and social change. An introduction offers an overview of the period's history and the first chapter looks at castle towns, the rise of urban culture, and the social status of artists.
"The urbanization of Japan during the Edo period promoted dramatic changes in the aesthetic assumptions and social practices of both artists and their audience. Until the late sixteenth century, art was a realm of experience limited to the privileged few. The growth of urban culture had challenged this social monopoly. Through participation in artistic activities of all kinds, men and women proclaimed themselves members of an elite where standing was based on taste and discernment, not birth. Culture thus became the site of competition both within and among cities."

Peace and stability and improved communications allowed the development of a national culture and encouraged links, but regional centres maintained distinct styles and trends. They had different local traditions and were subject to different influences, notably Shogunal, Imperial, and Western. Guth deals in turn with four major cities — Edo, Kyoto, Osaka, and Nagasaki — and then with provincial and itinerant artists.

Guth only really covers painting and printing, touching on other arts where they are linked to these; she also explores links to literature, haikai and other forms of poetry, and science. Biographical details of important individuals are provided, but they are set in their broader context, within the lineages and networks that linked artists and schools.

"Toshusai Sharaku brought to actor portraits a more pronounced and often disconcerting form of realism. Unlike earlier masters of this genre, he did not idealize his subjects but instead deliberately exaggerated their personal physical traits (see FIG. 54, page 88). In doing so, he highlighted as never before the gap between the actor and his role. Sharaku's designs, numbering approximately 160, were all published by Tsutaju during a ten-month period between 1794 and 1795, when the artist mysteriously disappeared from view. Although it was once claimed that the brevity of Sharaku's career was due to negative reaction to his unflattering portrayals of popular stars, his enormous output makes this unlikely. Sharaku remains one of the most enigmatic personalities in the Edo print world."

There's an excellent selection of colour photographs of works of art, chosen to illustrate the text. You don't need a background in either art or Japanese history to enjoy Art of Edo Japan — it makes a fine way for a newcomer to learn something of those topics.

October 2005

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%T Art of Edo Japan
%S The Artist and the City 1615-1868
%A Guth, Christine
%I Harry N. Abrams
%D 1996
%O paperback, colour photos, index
%G ISBN 0810927306
%P 176pp