Styles of Play: The History of Merrymaking in Art

June 26, 2019 to August 28, 2019

“I was born to play” — a well-known passage from a collection of songs and ballads, Ryōjinhisyō, which was established in the end of Heian Period (late 12th century).  This exhibition focuses on “play” as a theme of art and presents a wide view of the transition of various forms of playing which all men and women were infatuated with, such as sugoroku, card games, dance and fashion.  It should be specially mentioned that this exhibition brings together numbers of masterpieces depicting merrymaking scenes which were painted in the beginning of the Early Modern Age and thus provides an unseen opportunity to explore the relationship between the way of living and “play.”

Emotional scenes of people enthusiastically playing various traditional games such as kaiawase (shell matching), kemari (kicking ball) and hagoita (battledore) have a long history of being one of the major subjects of paintings.  Since the Middle Ages, the traditional Chinese idea of “Four Gentlemen’s Arts” (Kin-ki-sho-ga; zither, igo, calligraphy and painting) had been transplanted and been encouraged to be practiced, and then numerous folding screens and sliding doors with the image of the theme had been produced.  In the Early Modern Age, those scenes of open-minded people enjoying outdoor pleasures such as cherry blossom viewing and fashionable dancing became a trendy subject of painting.  With the turn to the Edo Period, when the Bakufu’s feudal system had been firmly stabilized, the center of focus of merrymaking shifted toward indoor playing and more intimate scenes of having fun together took over the top of the list of popular painting themes.  Four Gentlemen’s Arts remained as a hidden subject in many of those creations, though, which portrayed a shamisen lute and sugoroku instead of a zither and igo.

Living in the modern world, we use a smartphone as a handy tool of communication to exchange texts and photos and at the same time to play games and music, which is a close resemblance of Four Gentleman’s Arts operated in a single hand.  Until not so long ago, however, we needed to meet and gather in person to play and practice certain games and arts, just as we see on these screens exhibited.

This exhibition encourages the viewer to examine closely the facial expressions of individual figures in the paintings.  Imagine the ultimate secrets of playfulness and techniques for living through the floating world which were carried in mind of our predecessors who exchanged innocent smiles at one time and at the other time spent melancholic days on unproductive playing.




Suntory Museum of Art

Suntory Museum of Art

General Information

Tokyo Midtown Galleria 3F
9-7-4 Akasaka, Minato-ku,
Tokyo 107-8643, Japan
More Information »