The Japanese galleries at the Metropolitan Museum have been pulling crowds since John T. Carpenter became curator in 2011. He has taken the permanent collection, shaken it up, threaded it through with strategic loans and, like a good teacher, unfurled it logically around graspable themes. Who could resist a show that tells the art history of a complex culture, as Mr. Carpenter did last year, entirely in images of birds?
With the “The Flowering of Edo Period Painting: Japanese Masterworks From the Feinberg Collection,” he takes on a different challenge: presenting a cogent narrative within the parameters of a private collection. But given the material, it would be hard to go wrong. What a collection this is. And what histories, new and old, it holds.
One history, a charmer, is that of the collection itself. Robert and Betsy Feinberg were young New York professionals in the 1970s when they bought a $2 poster — produced for a Met show, as it happens — of a 16th-century Japanese painting. They hung it in their apartment and concluded that this was the art for them.
At the time, ultrarefined ink landscape painting was the Japanese art of choice among connoisseurs. No one would have looked twice at an image like the one reproduced in the Feinbergs’ poster, a high-color, vividly detailed depiction of Portuguese traders, the first Europeans to arrive in Japan, galumphing around a port town like so many Sasquatches, to the appalled fascination of their Japanese hosts.
As collectors with smarts and pluck often do, the Feinbergs trusted their instincts and invested in a serious way in an undervalued product, namely art of the Edo period (1615-1868), a time when modern Japan — and modern Japanese art — was being formed.
It was a rough-and-tumble era. After nearly a century of territorial wars and bruising feudal chaos, consolidations were in process and centers of gravity shifting. Under military rule, the country’s political weight moved from the ancient imperial capital of Kyoto to a former fishing village turned shogun castle called Edo, today’s Tokyo, which was fast swelling into one of the world’s largest cities.
Social hierarchies were under reconstruction. A hereditary gentry and a warrior elite found themselves sitting down at the same table. Even more surprising, they were, suddenly, and with some discomfort, rubbing shoulders with ordinary people, urban tradesmen who, literate and entrepreneurial, were getting very rich, very fast.
In art, as in life, old divisions were giving way. Since the mid-15th century, rival family-based schools of art had maintained class affiliations. The Tosa school, which specialized in indigenous Japanese landscapes and literary themes, was aligned with the imperial court. The parallel Kano school, which looked to China, and specifically monochromatic brush painting, for its sources, was favored by the neo-Confucian shoguns.
In the Edo period, however, these two streams began to run together, sending out tributaries, and even incorporating European influences before Japan slammed the door shut on the West.
All of this to say that the Met exhibition — which is fresh from a tour of Japan itself — is a thing of varied styles, moods, economies and aesthetic ideals. A good many of the 90 paintings, presented in two rotations, are fragrant with nostalgia for art of the past. But by the last third of the show, you’re in a world so much in the grip of appetite, change and fashion as to have no time for anything but the now.
Art, of course, had its fashions, and in Edo the so-called Rinpa painting was bedrock. Less a movement than a shared impulse to revitalize old genres, including nature painting and narrative, it originated in Kyoto early in the 17th century: A work from around 1630 by a Rinpa founder, Tawaraya Sotatsu, of a plump and adorable tiger, is the oldest piece in the show. After a half-century lull, the style was revived by Ogata Korin — Rinpa means “style of Korin” — and transplanted from Kyoto to Edo in the 19th century by Sakai Hoitsu (1761-1828).
We pick up its thread in a two-panel screen by Hoitsu called “The Ivy Way Through Mt. Utsu,” illustrating a scene from the venerable “Tales of Ise.” The painting dates from about 1815 but might have been done centuries earlier judging by the antique attire worn by its principal character, the ninth-century courtier-poet Ariwara no Narihira. The landscape, though, is a giveaway. It’s painted in the dripped, pooling technique, called tarashikomi, a Rinpa signature.
Nature becomes even more radically and decoratively abstract in folding screen paintings of cranes by the Edo-born Suzuki Kiitsu, Hoitsu’s star pupil and assistant. In this work, the younger artist makes a deep bow to his master and to the long-dead Korin, both of whom had painted versions of the same motif.
After Mr. Carpenter has set out these hints of Rinpa history, his show takes a swerving route in an Edo direction. Along the way, we encounter some unorthodox sights. A Kurosawaesque painting by Soga Shohaku of two medieval action heroes competing in martial theatrics is one. A matched pair of Chinese-style ink landscapes by Kano Sansetsu that have the spectral density of white noise is another.
And so it goes, this back-and-forth play of unalike styles. Ike no Taiga, who was immersed in literati culture and wowed people by painting, impromptu, with his fingers, gives us big scrawly portraits of Chinese eccentrics. At the same time, some of his late-18th-century peers were exploring a fine-tuned realism, as Mori Sosen did in a heartbreakingly tender fan painting of a stag licking a fawn, and Maruyama Okyo in a hanging scroll image of a rainbow-hued peacock, as exacting in detail as it is decorative in effect.
At another time, in another place, decorative would have been a dirty word. But increasingly in the Edo period, it was the hallmark of high style. In terms of design, it could be fairly simple. Such is the case in Tani Buncho’s window-size scroll called “Grasses and Moon,” in which a glowing circle and a splash of lines catch the mood of a lush summer night, and in a fan painting by Ike Gyokuran, wife of Ike no Taiga. Titled “Bamboo on a Windy Day,” it’s little more than a superbly controlled scattering of ink strokes that fly up like sparks.
But complex design is more often the rule, particularly when we get to the Edo we know best, the 19th-century floating world of pay-for-your-pleasure inns, bars and theaters. The city’s red-light district, Yoshiwara, seems, as recorded in art anyway, to exist beyond discretion, order and tradition, almost beyond history. Social hierarchies appear to have been more or less leveled. Ruling-class taste hardly matters. Street life is life, and life is art.
So we get paintings of klutzy Europeans of the kind the Feinbergs first saw, and of beggars, brothel window shoppers and local beauties all but smothered in floral kimonos, with images of flowers spilling across ceramics, onto lacquer boxes and into printed books. Painted portraits of courtesans by the likes of Utagawa Hiroshige and Gion Seitoku were expensive items, made for the rich. But ukiyo-e prints of the same figures were cheap, perfect products of the Yoshiwara cash-and-carry culture.
Everything was for sale; conservative values scrambled. Landscapes, once primary art subjects with spiritual dimensions, are now a backdrop for parties, or glimpsed from rooms littered with lounging lovers, all-night cooks and servants hovering for tips.
In one vivacious, gender-blending 17th-century painting, artist unknown, a 12th-century dance named for the poet Ariwara no Narihira, of “Tales of Ise” fame, is being performed. All the roles, male and female, were originally played by women. In the 17th-century update, we see a man playing the part of a woman playing the part of a man.
In some ways Japanese culture was never more vigorous and diverse, and the Edo period certainly turned out great artists. Just look at the staggeringly intricate pen-and-ink notebook drawings by Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849) — he of the “Great Wave” — that close the exhibition. Among a handful of entries added to the show from the Met’s collection, they’re realistic, fantastic, Eastern, Western, archaic and utterly modern. In short, they’re in classic Edo style, a style that the Feinbergs were astute and adventurous enough to recognize as some kind of classical more than 40 years ago.