This exhibition features Japanese dolls created during the eighteenth to early twentieth century, representing a variety of characters including emperors and empresses, warriors, infants, mythic and folktale characters, gods, dancers, and actors. A majority of the dolls exhibited were created during the last century of the Edo period (1603–1867). With delicately carved hands, faces painted white, and lavish silk brocades, these dolls demonstrate the long-standing craftsmanship, originality, and iconography of Japan’s ningyo culture.
Ningyo literally means “human figures” in Japanese, and specifically refers to traditional Japanese dolls. It is believed that the production of human images (known as dogu) emerged in Japan’s ancient Jomon culture (ca. 10,500–ca. 300 BC). Lady Murasaki Shikibu’s eleventh-century novel Genji monogatari (The Tale of Genji) mentions girls playing with dolls and women making protective dolls for their children. But it was not until the Tokugawa shogunate established a feudal military dictatorship in the early seventeenth century that the creation of sophisticated dolls, like those exhibited here, began.
Such dolls were often created for household shrines to memorialize someone or for festival celebrations (such as Tango-no-sekku, the Boys’ Day Festival held annually on May 5, and Hina-matsuri, the Girls’ Day Festival held on March 3), and presented as formal gifts. They were made for adults as well as children, whose health and happiness were celebrated with ningyoo- on special occasions. During the Edo period when Japan was mostly closed to global trade, dolls were collected domestically and often passed from one generation to another within a family.
Cornell alumni Marcia and Mark Goldstein, Classes of 1973 and 1972, have generously lent their fine collection for this exhibition, and we are grateful to them for the opportunity to share these treasures with visitors to the Johnson Museum.
PhD student, the History of Art