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Flowering Cherry and Autumn Maple with Poem Slips
Edo period, second half of 17th century
Peggy and Richard M. Danziger Collection, New York

Bronze flower vase with handles in the shape of doe heads
Ming period, 15th-16th centuries
Idemitsu Museum of Arts, Tokyo

Amusements in a Mansion
ca. 1640s
detail from a pair of six-panel folding screens
Private Collection, Japan

Campaign coat (jinbaori) with sawtooth pattern at hem and nine-circle crest
early 17th century
Private Collection, Japan

Kosode with waves and mandarin ducks
17th century
Tokyo National Museum

Comb with courtier on horseback amidst cherry blossoms
late Edo period
Sawanoi Museum of Combs and Ornamental Hairpins, Ome
Japan's Decorative Delirium
by Fred Stern

"Kazari: Decoration and Display in Japan, 15th-19th Centuries," Oct. 17-Dec. 31, 2002, at Japan Society, 333 East 47th Street, New York, N.Y. 10017

The Japanese have always known how to make the most of space limitations, but with "Kazari: Decoration and Display in Japan, 15th-19th Centuries," the Japan Society has done the impossible. The museum has managed to concentrate a maximum number of beautiful objects in minimal space without sacrificing esthetics or compromising what it set out to do. Simply put, the show strives to give a total picture of a society over a 400-year period.

The term "kazari," which can be translated as "to decorate," derives from an 8th-century poetry describing the delirious effect of adorning the hair with flowers. In this exhibition, organized by Tsuji Nobuo and Nicole Coolidge Rousmaniere for the British Museum, the Suntory Museum in Tokyo and Japan Society, the notion is elaborated into a complete esthetic system that is dynamic and performative (in contrast with prevalent notions of Japanese art as serene and minimalist). The exhibition offers some 200 examples in all major mediums -- painting, ceramics, lacquer, textiles, metal and glass.

The Japan of the 15th century was one of the most strife-torn countries the world has ever known. Samurai fought their way up and down the narrow island, but you would never know it from the serenity of screens, scrolls, celadon vases and earthenware treasures on display at Japan Society.

In the first room of this presentation of "Kazari," you will find four wonderful scrolls showing bamboo shoots in each of the four seasons. In an audacious bit of historical veracity, these scrolls are draped over a stunning six-panel 16th century folding screen presenting the four seasons with the sun and the moon. At the military Shogun court, nothing was more important than the presentation of a perfect marriage of architecture and decoration. The shoguns prided themselves on their good taste in every aspect of fine furnishings, whether it be textiles, sculpture, earthenware or painting. This period spanning the 15th- and 16th-centuries also showed a marked preference for things Chinese. High-ranking visitors, court nobles and sometimes even the emperor were dazzled not only by the variety of objects displayed but also by the unsparing care with which they were presented and preserved.

The exhibition covers the Muromachi period (1333-1573), the Momoyama (1573-1615) and finally the Edo period (1615-1868).

You will want to see the delightful handscroll illustrating the Tale of the Monkeys, the stunning black lacquer sake vessel, the bronze flower vases from China's early Ming period and tea bowls of exquisite design.

The most important period in Japanese decorative history is the short Momoyama era (1543-1615). Never again would Japan reach the height of this, its "renaissance." Outstanding examples from this period include the six-panel screen Amusements in a Mansion, whose priceless gold pigmented landscape and clouds frame the colorful accoutrements of the 17th-century men and women at play.

The campaign coats of the samurai and their followers are tributes to the inventiveness and imagination of Japanese court designers and their skills in executing the most elaborate creations.

Perhaps the most skillful of the artisans and artists of the Edo period were those working in lacquer on writing chests, tiered boxes and elaborate containers. Earthenware, stoneware and porcelain potters contribute their most poetic inventions to this show. The eye is at a loss to know where to look first.

Of course the "Floating World" is not forgotten. Kabuki costumes for female roles beggar the imagination with their creativity. Courtesans from the finest houses of Edo (Tokyo) are shown in their elaborate finery.

If there is another high point to be reached is must be in the combs produced in the late Edo period. They feature nature scenes, horses, birds and other animals with enormous delicacy and brilliant execution.

A glowing finale is a presentation of the various Japanese festivals, such as the Gion, Hatchiman and River Festival, in elaborately illustrated handscrolls and screens.

FRED STERN writes on art and antiques.