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Obtaining Images: Art, Production and Display in Edo Japan by Timon Screech (review)

From: The Journal of Japanese Studies
Volume 40, Number 1, Winter 2014
pp. 171-175 | 10.1353/jjs.2014.0036

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With the appearance of Obtaining Images: Art, Production and Display in Edo Japan, Timon Screech continues a sequence of generally related books and articles that have explored (in often idiosyncratic but rewarding ways) the visual culture of the Edo period. Those familiar with Screech’s work will see on display his predilection for oblique entry into obscure territory, emerging, more often than not, with engaging and fresh perspectives.

In Obtaining Images, Screech makes the overarching argument that by restricting our study of Japanese art (in this case, the arts of the Edo period) to matters of stylistic evolution and authenticity, we ignore a much wider body of informative evidence. Coming from outside the expected frameworks of chronological and stylistic analysis (but respectful of them), he urges the reader to reexamine the popular narratives describing the evolution of Edo-period art to pursue questions about the “whys” of production and the “hows” of use. Only informed by these two factors can the compositional, stylistic, and iconographic specifics of a work be fully assessed. And thus he launches into a boundary/border-stretching exercise that teases out from a catholic array of sources, both from and beyond the discipline of art history, the multiple social forces and mechanisms that prompted the creation and determined the uses of all types of images during the Edo period.

Screech marks painting as his main area of interest and expertise, with some reference to woodblock prints and to sculpture. And he demurs on calligraphy. Dividing his task into two main parts—“the mechanisms of artistic production and display and discussion of schools and styles”—he proceeds, in the first instance, to lay out the economics of production and multiple, nuanced occasions when images were called for in the evolving Japanese social system of the Edo period. In the second part of the book, Screech examines the dominant themes, trends, and schools of image production and how this imagery was situated within the new and evolving realities imposed by the Tokugawa government.

The cascade effects of the power shift were multiple. The new Tokugawa rulers sought to “visualize” their legitimacy within the embrace of the respective iconographies of Buddhism, a neo-Confucian philosophy, and Japanese cultural tradition as exemplified in classical literature and art. We are reminded that the Tokugawa position in Edo necessitated a literal rejiggering or replicating the geomancic protection afforded to the great sites of power in Kansai in order to accommodate important locations in Kanto. Surrogates of the Buddhist establishments in Kyoto emerged in Edo as even more powerful than their sources, all the while requiring more and more kinds of iconography and temples. The phenomenon of traveling icons moving often from the eclipsed geographic center of the country to the newly powerful east served to readdress attentions to the new rulers but also planted the seeds for a kind of festive pilgrimage of art mobility. All of this underscored the close associations of the Tokugawa and the benevolent universal reign of Buddhism.

The legitimacy of the Tokugawa reign was justified by Confucian principles of right rule and thus required the adaptation and use of appropriate Chinese images to underscore what was essentially a usurped rather than hereditary rule. The limpid ambiguity of Heian court mores offered no moral justification for a seizure of power akin to the Tokugawa moves. Cloistered retirement and intermarriage rather than regicide were the tools of takeover. Court literature and its resultant imagery were serviceable to the new regime only through careful editing and reconfiguring the images of literature to the purposes of shift in power focus. Screech observes the quandary presented to Tokugawa rulers obsessed with social order and morality by the “amorality” of a court ethos long expressed in classical literature, an ethos marked by indulgence, permissiveness, ambiguity, and celebration of (or at least unseemly emphasis on) exile. These characteristics were seen as particularly evident in the Tales of Ise and the Tale of Genji. The Tales of Ise describes a journey eastward from the capital. Edo-period revisionists had the opportunity to gradually reposition emphasis on scenes depicting Mount Fuji, the Musashi Plain, and other episodes so as to shift what was originally a wandering...

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