The National Gallery’s extraordinary show of art from Japan’s Edo period is not only vast, but is in fact nearly twice as vast as it seems: Because most of the works on view in the museum’s East Wing are quite fragile, roughly 90 percent of them will be replaced in mid-January, yielding an almost entirely different exhibit. Yet the complex spirit of the 250-year epoch (1615-1868) is represented by a single object of the nearly 300 assembled by guest curator Robert T. Singer: a samurai helmet in the shape of a butterfly.

This embodiment of Edo society shows martial regimentation countered by exuberant whimsy and esteem for nature—an expression of the Japanese character that has not lost its relevance. As it was for the newly prosperous merchants, craftsmen, and artists of the peaceful, booming Edo period, Japan today is both a bustling amusement park and a lifelong enrollment in military school. Indeed, for those without any knowledge of what happened there between 1868 and 1945, it might seem that Japan is still in the Edo period.

Named for the city—later designated Tokyo, “Eastern capital”—that was the headquarters of the ruling shoguns, the Edo period was a respite from centuries of strife. The country’s incessant civil wars ceased when the Tokugawa clan consolidated its power, and the result was an economic boom that created Japan’s equivalent of the Renaissance. The shoguns’ rule was despotic, and it didn’t ease the country’s fundamental feudalism: Peasants for the most part remained peasants, virtually all foreign contact was prohibited, and such Western contagions as Christianity were brutally repressed.

Still, the era saw the development of individualism and the possibility of upward mobility: The show includes 17th-century pieces by Nonomura Ninsei, the first Japanese potter to sign his work, and Tanaka Mori’s 19th-century memorial statue of Ganku, an artist who rose above his humble origins to be depicted in a form usually reserved for nobles and priests. Where Japanese art had previously celebrated nature, artists during Edo turned for inspiration to urban life and the popular arts. Theater, sumo wrestling, and teahouses (with music, dance, sake, and sex all on the menu) flourished; woodblock prints depicting actors, wrestlers, and geishas not only expressed the broad enthusiasm for such pursuits, but also brought Japanese visual art out of the castles and temples and into the streets.

When executed by such masters as Kitagawa Utamaro, Toshusai Sharaku, and Keisai Eisen (all represented here), these inexpensive, widely circulated prints of life’s fleeting pleasures—ukiyoe, “the floating world”—were as artful as any of the exquisite lacquered boxes that belonged only to the gentry and were rarely brought out for display. Edo woodblocks also had something in common with the American pop art that would arrive more than a century later: They reproduced and traveled well—which made them Japanese art’s ambassadors to the world. This show includes a print of Katsushika Hokusai’s Great Wave, which may well be the work of Japanese art most often parodied in the West. (A digitized detail from it is on the cover of a new book, Patrick Smith’s Japan: A Reinterpretation). The wide selection of ukiyoe prints also demonstrates how they, with their vivid colors, elegant use of line, and evocative suggestion of things unseen, influenced such European movements as impressionism and art nouveau.

The European connection became possible because, 15 years before the Edo period ended with the Meiji rebellion that restored the emperor, American ships had arrived in Edo Bay. (This was to be merely the first time America tried to force Japan to play by the West’s rules.) The arrival of Westerners convulsed the country, leading to rapid modernization, the overthrow of the shogun, and, eventually more war, with the Japanese invasions of Korea, Taiwan, and Manchuria. The final years of the Edo period were not placid.

These consequences are not exactly clear in the National Gallery show, whose organization is its principal drawback. Separated into six thematic sections, the exhibit emphasizes cultural continuity at the expense of historical coherence. Placing early-Edo objects next to late ones makes for the occasional illuminating juxtaposition, but also for some confusion. The shift from the aristocratic, Chinese-rooted 17th-century style to the populist, cosmopolitan 19th-century mode—which is to say, the creation of modern Japanese culture—is hard to track through sections devoted to Edo style, samurai, work, religion, travel and landscape, and entertainment.

There is a historical drift to this approach, since travel and entertainment, the last two themes, grew more popular as the population became more affluent (and life became less dangerous). But the period’s quietly dramatic changes can be encountered throughout the show: in Hokusai’s series of prints of potential tourist attractions, in Ando Hiroshige’s view of a military practice ground that was gradually taken over by fabric dyers as preparations for battle became less important, and in Kusumi Morikage’s Enjoying the Evening Cool Under an Arbor, which is considered the first unidealized depiction of a poor farm family in Japanese art. Although the Confucian social hierarchy did not officially change, commoners (especially in Edo itself) began to assert themselves.

In short, Edo residents developed what American urbanites now call “attitude.” Edo grew into what was perhaps the largest city in the world during the period, and although it was still risky to tangle with society’s three ruling classes—the nobility, the priests, and the samurai—the newly moneyed middle class did find strength in numbers. Pre-Edo Japanese art is characterized by exquisite objects meant for noble contemplation, and while there are plenty of such pieces in this show—Yosa Buson’s very Chinese-looking screen and scroll paintings, for example—they are upstaged by work designed for commoners.

Thus it is that earthy humor is as common as reverence in Edo works. In addition to samurai helmets outfitted with rabbit ears or shaped like upside-down rice bowls, the exhibit includes a depiction of the death of the Buddha in which all the characters are replaced by vegetables (the Buddha himself by a large white radish). As the pleasures of the flesh became more open—Kabuki theater was associated with both female and male prostitution—people were rendered both more carnal and more cartoonish. The two characteristics come together in the work of Utagawa Kuniyoshi, who portrayed human faces constructed from a mass of writhing nude figures.

This playfulness probably explains why, as Singer notes in his introduction to the exhibit’s massive catalogue, Japanese art scholars until recently paid little attention to the Edo period, preferring the more formal work of previous eras. If Edo art is not always refined, however, it is robust, diverse, and dizzy with contradictions that still define Japanese life. Those who would like to understand contemporary Japan better would be well-advised to spend a few hours—or a few weeks—viewing these rarely exhibited treasures.CP

More from WCP