Look back to the glorious past of the ancient Japanese imperial capital of Kyoto, originally called Heian-kyō, as it was envisioned by artists of the ukiyo-e school working many centuries later in the city of Edo (modern Tokyo). The exquisitely refined court culture of the Heian period (794-1185), named for the city, and the flamboyant urban popular culture of the Edo period (1615-1868), the Floating World (ukiyo), are playfully juxtaposed in prints, paintings, and book illustrations that implicitly compare the commoners of early modern Edo to the lords and ladies of ancient Heian-kyō: the beautiful poet Ono no Komachi, the ardent lover Ariwara Narihira, the fictional paragon Prince Genji, and many more. The greatest classics of courtly literature were presented visually in serious, straightforward versions; in modern updates; and even in humorous parodies. These vivid images helped to make the heritage of classical Japanese literature not just the property of a small group of aristocrats, but part of a national culture shared by all social classes.
“Echoes of Heian-Kyō: Court Culture in the Floating World” is the third in our series of exhibitions (along with “Celebrating Kyoto: Modern Arts from Boston’s Sister City,” on view through September 7, 2009, and the past exhibition “Visions of Kyoto: Scenes from Japan’s Ancient Capital”) commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of the sister city relationship between Boston and Kyoto.