Art and Politics Cross Paths at the Phillips

Posted June 24, 2005 at 4:15pm

A grounded jet and an emperor may have kept two of the three co-chairs of “East Meets West: Hiroshige at The Phillips Collection” from making an appearance at the exhibit’s preview party last week, but not former Speaker and ex-U.S. ambassador to Japan Tom Foley.

To be fair, the former Democratic Representative from Washington state conceded that he neither owned a private plane, as did his former Congressional colleague and ambassadorial successor Howard Baker, nor had he been summoned to the Land of the Rising Sun to brief the Japanese emperor, as had the other exhibit co-chairman, Japanese Ambassador Ryozo Kato.

“I don’t have an airplane, so my sympathies with my colleague and successor are limited,” Foley quipped, noting that Baker’s plane was experiencing mechanical problems.

The exhibit in question shines a spotlight on the influential 19th-century Japanese printmaker Utagawa Hiroshige and his series of woodblock prints depicting the 53 post towns along the Tokaido Road, a 300-mile coastal highway in eastern Japan linking Kyoto to Tokyo. Hiroshige, known as the artist of “mist, snow and rain,” would impact a wide swath of American and European modernists (many of whose works are interpolated throughout the exhibit).

Despite a less-than-expected Congressional turnout at the preview, Foley, a glass of white wine in one hand, waxed rhapsodic on the role of art in salving partisan wounds.

“Anything that helps improve conversation between Republicans and Democrats is a useful thing and … one of the things that does provide a neutral environment is art,” said Foley. “Art and sports.”

Speaking of sports, Foley, now a partner at the law firm Akin Gump Strauss Hauer and Feld, didn’t seem to mind that he was missing out on the 44th Annual Roll Call Congressional Baseball Game at RFK Stadium to pay homage to Hiroshige.

“I was not a great baseball player myself, so I can’t say I ever contributed anything except my goodwill,” he said, adding: “It’s bad enough not to have the majority, but to lose the baseball game year after year is really humbling.” (It seems Foley made the right choice in forgoing the ballpark for the gallery, as once again the Democrats were trounced by the Grand Old Party, this time 19 to 11.)

So did Democrat Foley and Republican Baker, who recently returned from a nearly four-year posting as the top U.S. envoy to Japan, frequently bond over their shared artistic passion?

To be frank, Foley said, whenever he’d dropped in on Baker at the ambassador’s residence in Japan, the conversation was more likely to turn on “U.S.-Japanese relations and the state of American public life.”

But then, maybe that’s because the two “former political types” didn’t have as much ideological animosity to transcend.

“We are a product of a different era,” the dapper, pinstripe-wearing Foley mused. “We are good friends.”

So good in fact, that later as Foley gazed at Hiroshige’s spare, evocative prints on the second floor of the gallery, he took the time to share a few stories with friends about the former Senate Majority Leader.

There was the time Ambassador Baker had entered a photo competition in Japan and won, recalled Foley. Then there was another occasion when Baker, a chief of staff to President Ronald Reagan during his second term, had granted himself permission to snap an aerial shot of the White House, he said, noting that Baker is “close to a world-class photographer.” (At one point during his tenure as the United States’ man in Tokyo, Baker even had an exhibit of his Japanese landscape photographs on display there.)

Back downstairs, the exhibit’s curator, Susan Behrends Frank, sat on a high-backed, patterned sofa contemplating the humor implicit in many of Hiroshige’s pictures. The Tokaido series depicts everything from sumo wrestlers atop litters carried by skinny-legged porters to aggressive prostitutes to farmers warming their bums by the fire.

“Some of them make you laugh out loud,” said Frank, smiling widely. “He’s like the Japanese Daumier.”

Hiroshige, she noted, would have been familiar with the “floating world” of fleeting pleasures found along the legendary highway from his 1832 travels with an entourage from the Edo Shogun en route to pay tribute to the Japanese emperor in Kyoto. He would also have relied on guidebooks and the popular early 19th-century comic novel about the road, “Shank’s Mare,” when designing the prints, she said.

Still, other scenes were “completely imagined,” she pointed out. Referencing one particularly poetic image of a snow-blanketed Kambara at night, Frank noted the near impossibility of a wintery wonderland occurring in that area.

“It’s a season he would never have experienced there,” she laughed. “The Japanese think it’s funny. It’s like seeing snow in San Diego.”

“East Meets West: Hiroshige at The Phillips Collection” is on display through Sept. 4. The exhibit, sponsored by Lockheed Martin, is part of an international cultural exchange facilitated by Tokyo’s Mori Arts Center, which is displaying 55 masterworks from the Phillips Collection while the Hiroshige exhibit is on display in D.C. For more information on the exhibit, go to https://www.phillipscollection.org.