It's All Done With Mirrors - and Exquisitely - At the Met's Show of Japanese Ukiyo-e Art


I DON'T know why I keep forgetting the galleries set aside since 1987 for Japanese art in the Metropolitan Museum here. They are among the most handsomely designed and beautifully filled rooms to be found in this museum or anywhere else. Their space, lighting, and decor are totally in keeping with the art they display. In fact, nowhere else in the Metropolitan will one find so perfect a fusion of art, space, and interior architecture as one does in the galleries devoted to, and known as, ``The Arts of Japan.''

Perhaps I forget because I so seldom find myself in that area of the museum. The Metropolitan, after all, is so huge that entire sections of it can slip one's mind for years on end, only to be rediscovered when special exhibitions demanding one's attention are held in their galleries.

``Reflections of the Floating World: The Use of Mirror and Reflection in Ukiyo-e Art'' is such an exhibition. It is small, narrow in scope, and probably somewhat limited in appeal.

But, like the galleries within which it can be found, it is exquisite, in perfect taste, and wonderfully rewarding to visit. It includes colorful, often humorous woodblock prints by Hokusai, Utamaro, Hiroshige, and others; an album of brush-and-ink drawings by Hokusai and his disciples; two large albums of limited edition; privately distributed woodblock prints by various artists; and actual mirrors dating to the period of the prints.

The show is unusual and intriguing. It explores the use of the mirror, together with reflected images, in Japanese Ukiyo-e woodblock prints, whose name literally means ``pictures of the floating world.'' It became a very popular art form with Japan's merchant class in the 18th century.

The prints were not, however, taken seriously by the fine-art specialists of the period, who viewed them as vulgar and ``commercial.'' From their somewhat elitist vantage point, they may have been right, for the subjects depicted by Ukiyo-e artists invariably dealt with scenes of everyday life.

Typically, the prints in this exhibition include portraits of actors, beauties, and courtesans; studies of mothers with young children; and landscapes. All include mirrors or reflections as important elements in the compositions - for very specific reasons.

The mirror has always played a key role in Japanese symbolism. It represents the legitimacy and authority of the emperor, his divine ancestry, as well as knowledge and courage. It has often been viewed as a source of fairness and justice because it reveals truth, and it also serves as an important symbol of purification in the Buddhist ritual.

Ukiyo-e artists used mirrors and reflections (including reflections in water) to enhance a narrative, open up pictorial space and create compositional richness, but primarily to help capture the illusory, transitory aspects of life, especially of a life given over to pleasure.

There is a subtle, bittersweet quality present in Utamaro's print ``Yamauba and Kintaro,'' which becomes more pronounced in the same artist's ``Scene in Yoshiwara.'' It can even be found in Hokusai's ``Fuji Reflected in Lake Misaka.'' It pervades Hokusai's sparse, purely linear drawings, gives even his most casual sketches a note of poignancy, and touches everything else in the show with a distinct but discreet air of gentle melancholy.

That quality, in fact, hangs in the air throughout all 10 of ``The Arts of Japan's'' galleries and contributes effectively to their combined aesthetic impact. Nothing on view escapes it, not the fantastic handscroll of ``Acrobats'' of about the year 1800, nor even the exquisite, lightly colored hanging scroll of ``Cherry Blossoms'' by Matsumura Goshun. Wherever one finds oneself in these galleries, one is reminded subtly but unmistakenly that human life is brief and that it should, therefore, be savored fully with acute awareness of both its beauty and its brevity.

That reminder is particularly strong in a fragment of a screen, dating from around 1535, that depicts a young woman playing a samisen, a three-stringed plucked lute. Although it is somewhat worn and rather dark in tone, one cannot help but be affected by the gently melancholy aura of this work.

This is art designed to counter life's pains and disappointments, to be savored as a momentary flicker of beauty in a world of difficulty and sadness. Even the painting's style - the result of many centuries of thought and care - helps establish and sustain this mood, for it carries in it the combined, distilled sensibilities of the thousands of earlier painters who helped shape it. What one sees and experiences, therefore, is not one man's response to life but an entire culture's understanding of life's meaning communicated directly through that one individual.

And if that is true of this painting, it is equally true of everything else in these galleries. From the moment one enters them and is confronted by three monumental sculptures, to the last glance backward as one leaves, one is pervaded, not only by the arts of Japan, but by its culture.

At the Metropolitan Museum through Oct. 28.

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