Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Points East

London, 25th May 2009, part 1.

Another day off, another couple of exhibitions...

Morning was Kuniyoshi at the Royal Academy. A lot of the prior publicity and posters for this had implied that it was much heavier on the action and mythic adventure than a lot of Japanese prints of the period - less of the elegant views of Mount Fuji, more of the gurning swordsmen battling giant carp - with a strong hint of the manga from a century later about it. And, to be sure, there was a fair bit of that; but there were also some lovely landscapes and a certain amount of rather strange humour. (Octopuses acting like popular entertainers of the period, anyone? Not to mention the phallus-shaped cartoon characters.) Still, Kuniyoshi came across as more cheerfully admitting to being part of the louche Floating World than Hokusai or Hiroshige. Or maybe that was just the way these images were presented. A lot of beauty, though, with a lot of oriental strangeness in it.

Incidentally, gamers might like to note that several of the pictures featured not only (gurning) samurai with swords, but also female figures with naginata. The samurai-class woman with that sort of combat training was evidently part of the imagery back then. I also loved the way that a lot of Kuniyoshi's historical images had to supposedly depict quite early events, because anything less than a few hundred years old was considered too politically sensitive in 19th century Japan - so he just depicted scenes that his audience might guess were really scenes from slightly later dates.

After lunch, it was on to the British Museum, to catch Shah 'Abbas: The Remaking of Iran before it ended. This was cunningly located in the upper levels of the old Reading Room space (with the windows blanked out to keep the light levels down), thereby borrowing a great domed space from a different culture to good effect for an exhibition about part of the Islamic world. The show itself was full of lush and gorgeous Persian art, while still conveying something about the history of the reign of Shah 'Abbas I (1587–1629). This, of course, had all too much of period despotism about it, being full of brothers murdering each other and the Shah killing the advisor who'd helped him depose his own father a couple of years earlier. The Elizabethan English adventurer who ended up at as a leading figure 'Abbas's court - and whose portrait crops up early in the exhibition - must have been very willing to live dangerously. Although doing comparably well back home could have been pretty risky, I guess.

The excuse to tie together the politics with the artworks was the idea that 'Abbas was consciously creating a whole new style for his reign - not just showing off dazzling wealth, but making a conscious break with the past. I'll take the experts' word for this, although it would have taken a far vaster exhibition with much more earlier stuff to show the novelty of these things. Incidentally, amidst the (rather faded) silk carpets and gorgeous miniature paintings, there were also whole cabinets of Chinese porcelain (often from a century or so before 'Abbas's reign), showing which off evidently counted as refined conspicuous consumption back then. Although 'Abbas apparently donated a lot of it to a Shiah shrine (which had to build a whole new building around the display niches for his gifts), possibly mostly to make way for all his new bling.

Two sumptuous exhibitions, two reminders of the richness of different artistic traditions. Mind you, lots of reminders of how much the associated cultures went in for sticking sharp things in other people (or themselves - one of them was samurai-era Japan, after all), too, but these days we can sit back and admire the great pictures.

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