Gallery view of the special exhibition Painting Edo: Japanese Art from the Feinberg Collection.
Painting Edo — the largest exhibition ever presented at the Harvard Art Museums — offers a window onto the supremely rich visual culture of Japan’s early modern era. Selected from the unparalleled collection of Robert S. and Betsy G. Feinberg, the more than 120 works in the exhibition connect visitors with a seminal moment in the history of Japan, as the country settled into an era of peace under the warrior government of the shoguns and opened its doors to greater engagement with the outside world. The dizzying array of artistic lineages and studios active during the Edo period (1615–1868) fueled an immense expansion of Japanese pictorial culture that reverberated not only at home, but subsequently in the history of painting in the West. In an act of extraordinary generosity, the Feinbergs have promised their collection of more than three hundred works to the Harvard Art Museums.
Folding fans made of paper and bamboo were used to keep the heat of the Japanese summer at bay. At the end of the season, used fans might be elegantly floated downriver by their owners—both men and women—in celebration of the arrival of autumn. Yet the intimate, ephemeral nature of the fan belies its cultural and symbolic weight. More than utilitarian objects, fans were used to beckon the gods during ritual ceremonies, to offer auspicious tidings, or to convey romantic sentiments; they were given as gifts and brandished as refined accessories. Edo painters embraced the challenges of the format to produce highly inventive compositions that played on its wealth of poetic, seasonal, and auspicious associations as well as its uniquely kinetic surface. Some of the painted fans exhibited here were intended to be mounted flat on folding screens, while others have been separated from the bamboo ribs to which they were originally attached and carefully preserved.