A Haunting Exhibition at the Geidai Museum in Ueno- URAMESHIYA (Resentful ones)… Art of the Ghost – thru September 13th
By Avi Landau
YU-REI (幽霊）ー ghosts, have long been an important part of Japanese art and culture and they are featured prominently in many of Japan`s greatest and most enduring works of literature (The Tale of Genji), Kabuki theater (Tokaido Yotsuya Kaidan), the Noh theater (just about every one!), and cinema (Mizoguchi`s Ugetsu Monogatari). Paintings and woodblock prints depicting Japanese ghosts (distinctive for their lack of feet and limp hands held out chest high) were one of the most popular genres of graphic art in the 19th century- and it has long been the custom to tell ghost stories in Japan during sultry summer night (you can sample some of the best in Lafcadio Hearn`s classic “Kwaidan”)
Given Shakespeare`s Hamlet and Macbeth and Dickens` A Chirstmas Carol and the myriad Hollywood ghost movies, the presence of “restless spirits” in Japanese literature drama and film seemed perfectly natural to me. And back in New York, we also like to tell scary stories on summer nights (or any night of the year, for that matter). But what really surprised me was the abundance of ghostly depictions in Japanese graphic art – I could not think of any other country with so many PAINTINGS of ghosts! This is possible, because in Japan, people`s image of ghosts is not of flying white sheets with black cut-outs for eyes, but of tormented, resentful, passionate spirits in human form (very often as beautiful women!)which make it a very interesting motif for an artist to work with.
And besides being creepy- many of them exhibit dazzling technical skill and some pure artistic brilliance!
That`s why I decided on the spur of the moment today to take advantage of 4 hours that had opened up to me (because of the threat of an incoming typhoon) to zip into Tokyo to see the Art of the Ghost exhibition at the Geidai Museum. And tough I got sopping wet, I still feel (now that I am safe and dry at home) that it was well worth the effort.
The exhibition is relatively small in scale, containg about 150 pieces- mostly hanging scrolls and woodblock prints, but also a few Noh masks and other items.
Fifty of the hanging scroll are from the collection of the late Rakugo storyteller Sanyutei Encho (1839-1900) who was famous for his ghost stories. The paintings are on loan to the museum from the Zenshoan Temple in Yanaka (a short distance from the Geidai Museum) which was Encho`s family temple and the caretaker of his collection.
Some of Encho`s personal belongings and posters promoting his performances etc. are also on display.
The second section features a wide range of hanging scrolls and prints, some by the biggest names in Japanese art- Utagawa Kuniyoshi, Katsushika Hokusai, and m y personal favorite- Kawanabe Kyosai.
The Geidai Museum is one of my favorite venues and they curating is usually first rate. and though this time they also put together a fine show with an excellent catalogue I found it a bit cheezy- they piped in some creepy music and roped of the works with Shinto ropes and lightning shaped SHIDE papers to try to add a sense of mystery. This didn`t work for me. What they should have done, though, was show these works in candle-light instead of electric bulbs- the effect would have been goose-bump provoking!
The fact that several of the works depicted ghost by lanterns drove the point home to me. Before electricity the world of the night was just much more mysterious than it is now. And obviously, with several pictures showing ghosts by mosquito nets, the combination of candle-light and mosquito nets must have created many optical illusions in past ages.
Still, despite the advent of electric light and all the rest of modern civilization many Japanese still do see ghosts. In fact, when I first arrived at Tsukuba University one young Japanese student told me that one night in her dorm room, a young woman in Kimono appeared in her room- holding a baby! Tingles went up and down my spine when I saw ot only one, but several paintings of just such ghostly mother-child pairs !
The exhibition`s homepage can be found here:
and the Geidai Museum`s site is here: