The Freer Gallery’s “Japanese Art in the Age of Koetsu” is a small show, and its attempt to capture the spirit of faraway 17th-century Kyoto in four rooms might seem futile. But arraying a few exquisite objects in a little space is the essence of traditional Japanese aesthetics, whether the objects are rocks amid raked gravel or pickled vegetables in a wooden lunch box. And finding the character of ancient Kyoto in these galleries just might be easier than locating it in Kyoto itself, which was spared by American bombers but not by 7-Elevens, pachinko parlors, and the featureless mid-rise office buildings ubiquitous in postwar urban Japan.

Some traditional character has survived in the area, perhaps because Kyoto in its golden age was as much a region as a city. Most of the area’s best-known landmarks stand at some distance from the center city, often in compounds that were originally country estates. On Kyoto’s outskirts, Hon’ami Koetsu operated an artists’—and artisans’—colony in Takagamine. In a compound containing as many as 57 buildings occupied by painters, calligraphers, ceramicists, and paper- and brush-makers, he oversaw a neoclassical revolution in Japanese art.

Koetsu was Charles Lang Freer’s favorite Japanese artist, and the objects in this show, as Freer’s bequest requires, come exclusively from the museum’s collection. No doubt a more comprehensive survey of Koetsu’s influence could be arranged, but these 44 objects (only five attributed to Koetsu) are enough to conjure early 17th-century Kyoto—as is fitting for a show of Japanese art—in miniature.

Koetsu was born in 1558 into a family that for several generations had specialized in the connoisseurship of fine swords. The artist continued in this calling for a time, but then turned to calligraphy, ceramics, lacquerware, and painting. It’s impossible to conjecture credibly about Koetsu’s motivation—and self-expression is hardly the point of traditional Japanese art—but swords did become less important in this period. The Tokugawa shoguns had risen to power, establishing an era of relative peace. Koetsu was a beneficiary of this calm period, both indirectly and directly: Domestic tranquility brought a boom in Japanese arts and crafts, and the artist’s retreat was built on land deeded him by the shogun.

Koetsu was acclaimed as a calligrapher; he’s known as one of “three brushes,” the era’s greatest masters of the form. (The Japanese love keeping track of these sorts of hierarchies.) Although Kyoto artists of the period usually worked for the glory of their patrons, Koetsu became such a star that his everyday jottings were collected. This show includes one of his letters, just a few characters quickly rendered, that was subsequently mounted on a scroll.

Kanji, the characters Japanese borrowed from Chinese, began as pictures, and they have a graphic quality lacking in simple Western alphabets. This show includes several lacquerware boxes for writing instruments, notably one on which a brief lyric—an observation of a landscape as evening falls—is both engraved and illustrated. The characters are subtly integrated into the image, so that poem and picture are inseparable. The result is a remarkable unity of form and function, word and image, idealization and representation.

Most of the calligraphy here, of course, is on paper or fabric, not engraved into gold-, silver-,

and lacquer-embellished wood. Koetsu’s brushwork is precise but fluid, embodying the essential balance between traditional form and individual variation. His characters vary from solid black to watery gray as his brush goes dry; such “imperfection” is a crucial aspect of Japanese art.

In the deliberately rough bowls designed for the tea ceremony, this quality is known as wabi (literally, “worn”). Wabi rejects ostentation and emulates the most important inspiration to Japanese art, the natural world. The ceramic bowls in this exhibition (one by Koetsu and others by contemporaries and imitators) have man-made form but natural texture, as if they were hewn from rock. One of the artist’s most famous bowls has been compared to Mount Fuji itself.

Koetsu collaborated frequently with Sotatsu, a painter and printmaker who never joined the Takagamine community. (Even less is known about Sotatsu than Koetsu, although it’s possible they were brothers-in-law.) One of the show’s most striking pieces is a scroll that overlays Koetsu’s calligraphy on Sotatsu’s woodblock prints of cranes and bamboo; the birds take flight to the right as the poem continues to the left.

Sotatsu apparently pioneered the technique, demonstrated by this scroll, of applying ink or pigment to wet paper or silk. The effect is soft, liquid, and luminous, suggesting the innovation—a mere four centuries later—of pouring watery acrylic paints on unfinished canvas, an essential technique of abstract expressionists such as Helen Frankenthaler and Morris Louis.

That’s not the show’s only intimation of the future. There’s also a screen painting (once attributed to Koetsu but no longer considered his work) that depicts coxcombs, maize, and morning glories. A sign that insular Japan already had links to America—the source of corn, via Portuguese and Spanish explorers—the painting boasts rich colors and vivid shapes that presage Van Gogh and Gauguin. There’s even an incense-pellet container in the shape of a rabbit, whose cartoonishly exaggerated ears argue that the Japanese would have found their way to Hello Kitty without Disney’s intervention.

That Shinto shrines and Hello Kitty coexist in Kyoto today may seem a contradiction, but this exhibit reveals that such incongruities have long characterized Japanese culture. The early 17th century was a feudal period, yet one in which the arts were so highly valued that artistic interests and abilities sometimes trumped social caste. It was also an era in which high-living aristocrats developed (or at least feigned) a taste for simplicity. The many scenes of natural beauty displayed here exalt not imperial grandeur but rustic modesty. Still, they’re frequently embellished with gold and silver, a quiet reminder that humble subject matter doesn’t necessarily denote populist art.

Tosa Mitsuoki’s Landscapes of the Four Seasons, like most of the pieces in this show, is rooted in Chinese painting (the impressionistic mountains and sky in the background) and yet is distinctively Japanese (the meticulously rendered birds and flowers in the foreground). Many such scroll paintings depict recognizable vistas of the Kyoto area, from Yoshino (the region that gave its name to one of the varieties of cherry tree planted along the Tidal Basin) to Lake Biwa (a striking location in Kenji Mizoguchi’s film Ugetsu). Ironically, the prestige of Kyoto’s artists at the time soon undermined the city’s arts community, as its practitioners were recruited to serve wealthy patrons in other parts of the country. The 17th century is now known as the beginning of the Edo Period, named after the city (now Tokyo) that supplanted Kyoto as the capital.

Except as a tourist destination, Kyoto is no longer any competition for Tokyo. Yet the work of Koetsu and his friends and followers still defines Japan’s underlying aesthetic. In a country where the beauty of the natural world seems increasingly remote, the ability to focus on the elegant detail is fundamental to discovering what is still serenely Japanese in that country’s polyglot urban jumble.CP