Stepping out of the Eastern Parkway subway station this morning, I was greeted by the most amazing sight: the cherry trees in front of the Museum were bursting with big, puffy pink blossoms. On Friday they had been all brown twigs, but over the weekend they just exploded. It had a dramatic effect on my mood: I went from tired and gloomy to bouncy and optimistic in a split second. And I’m not really the kind of person who oohs and aahs over pretty flowers.
This year, the incredible display of cherry blossoms found around the Brooklyn Museum (especially in the Botanic Garden next door) gains an additional dimension because inside we’re featuring a couple of great exhibitions of Japanese art. Obviously, you don’t need to be Japanese to appreciate the coming of Spring, but the rest of us can learn a thing or two from the Japanese approach to seasonal change. There’s a very ancient tradition in Japan, first practiced by the aristocracy and then later by the whole population, of watching very closely for the changes in nature that mark the transition between seasons and celebrating those changes with poetry and festivals. None of these festivals are as overtly nature-based or as broadly celebrated as Hanami, or cherry-blossom viewing, an occasion for picnics and strolling in groves of trees that were planted for the purpose. Picture an entire country sharing the giddy experience that I just had coming out of the subway, add quite a bit of alcohol and a day spent away from the office, and you have a sense of what Hanami is like.
In Japanese poetry and philosophy, cherry blossom viewing delivers two somewhat contradictory lessons. The sad truth is that cherry trees bloom for only about a week, then they shed their flowers in a wonderful blizzard of petals. The fleeting quality of their beauty is a large part of what’s so thrilling and meaningful about it all. In East Asian Buddhism, the flowering of the trees was used as a metaphor for human life in general: a gorgeous, exciting pageant, but woefully short. Buddhists argue that we should seek something deeper and more meaningful, something — described as “truth” — that surpasses such temporary, earthly thrills. However, as is often the case, popular tradition takes the Buddhist interpretation of the cherry blossoms and turns it on its head: instead of dismissing the power of ephemeral beauty, the Hanami festival embraces it and suggests that we all enjoy ourselves now because we cannot know what tomorrow brings.
When you see cherry blossoms in Japanese art — and you can find them in several prints in the exhibition, Utagawa: Masters of the Japanese Print, 1770-1900, open through June 15, 2008 — they can represent all the youth and optimism of Spring, but they can also represent the fleeting nature of life, a more pessimistic view. This kind of complex symbolism might seem like a bit of a downer to those of us who are just out to enjoy the view, but it’s what makes for great art. So the next time you see a Japanese image that pairs an image of a beautiful young woman with a branch of blossoming cherry, think about what the hidden message may be. But there’s also no harm in enjoying the beauty while we’ve got it.
Joan Cummins is the Lisa and Bernard Selz Curator of Asian Art at the Brooklyn Museum. Joan received her Ph.D. in 2001 from Columbia University. Prior to coming to Brooklyn, Joan served as Assistant Curator of Indian, Southeast Asian, and Himalayan Art at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Her most recent book is an introduction to Indian painting, published in 2006 by the MFA, Boston. Joan was a Research Associate in Brooklyn's Department of Asian Art from 1991-1993.