Check mail: Exhibit highlights Japanese letters

Even when school’s in full session, this modest little exhibit at the University of Virginia Art Museum might remain largely unexplored. In the swell of (deserved) attention surrounding the Sam Abell exhibit, it might be almost entirely ignored, tucked as it is in the far corner of the second floor, in a room adjacent to a big display space packed with Abell’s photography. If you do swing by Rugby Road to check out the Abell exhibit, do save some time– even 15 minutes– for “Letters, Poems, and All-Purpose Paper in 19th Century Japanese Prints.”
As the title of the exhibit implies, these prints take for their subject the epistolary life, which was a big deal in Japanese society at the time. Letter writing and poetry were not only esteemed arts but also became a ritualized activity.
This certainly jibes with the story laid out in the prints. In a print by Utagawa Kunbada, a woman expresses surprise in finding a letter delivered by her dog. In an inset at the top left corner, much like a “meanwhile. . .” panel in a comic book, the writer of the letter and hopeful lover waits for her response. The scene is rendered in pale colors and even includes calligraphy on the face of the print.
Other prints take far greater liberties with content by giving the letter an almost fanciful symbolic weight. In “Scene from a Kabuki Play” by Utagawa Kumiyoshi, a high-ranking courtesan approached by a sword-wielding assailant seems to be defending herself with an unraveled and particularly long letter. Whether she is actually attempting to shield herself with the letter or whether the letter is a symbol is left ambiguous. 
In Tsukioka Yoshitoshi’s “Lunacy– Unrolling Letters,” a servant woman, distraught at the death of her lover, unrolls a very long letter from him and it curls up into the sky like smoke, almost like a stand-in for the spirit of her dead lover.

At the University of Virginia Art Museum, “Letters, Poems and All-Purpose Paper in 19th Century Japanese Prints,” runs through mid-fall.  Rugby Road. 924-3592.

Read more on: UVA Art Museum