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Perspective on a Pleasure Quarter
mid-18th century
Musée national des Arts asiatiques-Guimet

Kaigetsudô Anchi
Portrait of a Standing Courtesan
early 19th Century
Tokyo National Museum

Entertainments in a Residence (detail)
Osaka Municipal Museum

Picnic to Admire the Cherry Trees in Bloom (detail)
Brooklyn Museum of Art

Whose Sleeve Is This? (Tagasode zu) (detail)
early 17th century
Musée national des Arts asiatiques-Guimet

Hishikawa Moronobu
Beauty Looking Back
second half of the 17th century
Collection Sumisho, Tokyo

Suzuki Harunobu
Courtesans Exposed to Public View
ca. 1769
Musée national des Arts asiatiques-Guimet

Katsukawa Shun'ei
Courtesans Exposed to Public View (Harimise)
late 18th century
Musée national des Arts asiatiques-Guimet

Kitagawa Utamaro
Thoughtful Love (Mono-omou koi)
Musée national des Arts asiatiques-Guimet

Kitagawa Utamaro
A Prostitute "Mousquet" (Teppô)
Musée national des Arts asiatiques-Guimet

Chôbunsai Eishi
Contest of Pleasures of the Four Seasons (detail, autumn and winter)
Private Collection, Copenhagen

Attributed to Chôkôsai Eishô
six sheets from an Album of 13 Erotic Prints (Fumi no kiyô-gaki)
ca. 1801
Musée national des Arts asiatiques-Guimet

Prelude to Desire
by Michèle C. Cone

"Images du Monde flottant: Peintures et estampes japonaises XVII-XVIII siècles," Sept. 29, 2004-Jan. 3, 2005, at the Galeries nationales du Grand Palais, Paris

It is unusual for a blockbuster in a western capital to feature nonwestern art. Yet all fall long at the Grand Palais in Paris, crowds lined up to see a show of over 200 of the Japanese paintings and prints from the 17th and 18th centuries known to the amateur as ukiyo-e. Translated into English as "images from the floating world," ukiyo-e denotes the artistry from and about the pleasure quarters of old Japanese cities. It also evokes a world that is without contingency though transitory.

Edo (now Tokyo) was famous for its pleasure district, named Yoshiwara, a city within the city where all the senses could be indulged and art flourished. Not only do the images drawn and painted on large multipanel screens, on horizontal and vertical scrolls and on paper take your breath away, but they open a window on the secretive world of prostitution Japanese-style and, by extension, on Japanese art and society during the Edo period.

Anonymously authored, or attributed to famous Japanese artists like Utamaro, Harunobu, Moronobu and others, the art on view in Paris came from nearby and far away museums and private collections. One institution that lent a number of major works was Guimet, a Paris museum that received many of its 17th and 18th century ukiyo-e from French collectors who, together with French artists, had once participated in the craze for Japanese prints. From Guimet came a painting on silk entitled Perspective on a Pleasure Quarter that plunged viewers directly into this distant and mysterious "floating world," and provided a perfect introduction to the show (artist unknown, dating from the mid-18th century, 124 x 158 cm.).

Within an immense cubic structure supported by tall columns, a multitude of activities are represented in stage-like perspective: In a disarming profusion and confusion of size and scale, figures shown standing or sitting in the crowded space exchange glances, play music, parade. Here tea is being served, there displays of wares of all sorts are being hawked. In the lower right hand corner, a tall folding screen, one of several dispersed throughout the space, offer at best limited privacy to the geisha standing by.

Perspective on a Pleasure Quarter is but one example of Japanese genre painting on a large scale. An amazing collection of screens looking very much like those depicted in Perspective. . . provided further insight into the daily life of geishas. In some of these large multipanel screens, the geisha images are small figures within elaborate architectural settings. In others, the staging is minimal, and the focus is on groups of geishas dressed in sumptuous costumes. One four-panel screen (from the Brooklyn museum) shows young women on some sort of expedition on foot "to admire the cherry trees in bloom ," another four-panel screen shows them seated for a picnic. Other screens have them performing dances, listening to and making music, reading and writing letters, addressing or being addressed by men.

Most impressive in size and suggestive mystery is a pair of screens six panels long and five feet high, void of human presences (anonymous, mid 17th century) also from Guimet. Painted in ink and autumn colors on a gold leaf ground, they feature sumptuous robes and priceless kimonos abandoned on the floor or draped over a banister. Their generic title, tagasode zu (Whose sleeve is this? Whose sleeves are they?) refers, as the catalogue explains, to the fact that "the sleeve of a kimono was a metaphoric extension of the female body and of the perfume that emanates from it."

By displaying the room-size folding screens off the floor and like paintings, as was done at the Grand Palais, the curators made a formalist decision. However, it does not take much imagination to hear cooing sounds behind the screens, and to return the screens and their images to their likely original function -- to conceal sex acts at the same time as serving as an enticement for them.

The show also included long vertical scrolls displaying individual "beauties" (as they were called) on an empty ground. Captured as if by a camera in informal poses, dressed in layers of brilliantly patterned kimonos, they embody femininity even though some of them are men impersonating women (as was the case in the Kabuki theatre). Several of these "beauties" are by the famed Hirokawa Monorobu, who liked to show his women turning their heads as they walked on as if to check on the presence of a client behind them.

In all of these works, much attention was paid by the artists to the elaborate costumes worn by the gracefully moving figures. It is not surprising to learn that geishas played the role of fashion models in their days, and that their dress influenced fashion and the fabric industry. However, the temptation to idealize the profession of geisha and her sophisticated life-style must be resisted, as some of the images convey the gawking that was going on, the zoo-like viewing of them through windows that have prison bars, and the crowded interiors into which they were herded at certain times of the day to await their clients.

In a six panel screen entiled Courtesans Exposed to Public Viewing, Katsukawa Sun'ei marvelously illustrates those aspects of geisha life. One feels the quiet and expectant atmosphere that reigns inside the green tea house, the geishas' place of work. The wall of windows from which the clients will inspect the young women and make their choice is at the moment bare and black, in contrast to the crowded interior and its seated inhabitants rivaling in grace and beauty. The colors of the kimonos, each featuring a different printed pattern, pick up the black of the windows, the red of the floor and the ochre of the walls. By a subtle individualization of gestures and facial traits, the artist suggests something of the loneliness, isolation and fight against boredom that must have reigned during those moments of idle wait.

An entire section of the show was dedicated to Kitagawa Utamaro, famed portraitist and notorious printmaker of scabrous scenes. Under his scrutiny, differences of social class are made visible. Age and to a certain extent body gestures tell the subjects apart. In the portraits on view, the higher-class Geisha is older, impeccably turned out, pensive-looking and self-contained. The lower-class ones on view in the show seem to be young, their hair is slightly unkempt, their kimonos open to show their breasts. One of them is painting her lips, another one is cleaning her teeth, a third one holds a handkerchief to her mouth. One might conclude that the professional life of the young low-class geisha demands that she be forever grooming herself, while the high class geisha has assets beyond her physical appearance with which to seduce men.

Utamaro's emphasis on character types, was apparently a new development in the history of Edo art. In his essay for the catalogue, Timothy Clark calls this esthetic "realistic idealization," an expression that applies not only to Utamaro's portraiture but to erotic work by him and by other providers of shungas (springtime images). Indeed, although each of the artists had his own style of erotica, the depictions of carnal pleasure were alike in showing in rather realistic ways how generic couples behave when they think that they are -- unobserved.

Not unlike Toulouse-Lautrec gaining the trust of the Parisian madams in order to paint his brothel scenes, his Japanese counterparts were apparently free to circulate through the pleasure quarters, to observe what took place in its streets, in its theatres and in its euphemistically called green "tea" houses. They probably posted themselves where they would not interfere with the antics of their protagonists, and recorded the love-making scenes with gusto, or so one conjectures from looking at the resulting images.

Entwined in various sexual poses, couples still wearing their loosely fitting kimonos tumble on the hard floor. Their bare legs flail in all directions, get hopelessly entangled, their clothes drop, and by the end of the sequence (for most of the shungas are multiple frames), the attendant -- often pictured looking in from the sidelines -- has gotten an eyeful, and so has the artist and so perhaps has the viewer.

At the Grand Palais, many of the viewers were middle-aged women. They did not blush in front of Utamaro's Prelude to Desire, showed no particular expression of disapproval as four vertical scrolls on the theme of "seasonal pleasures" by Chobunsai Eishi came into view, and quietly awaited their turn to enter a special alcove where Ten Scenes of Love, a horizontal scroll attributed to Katsukawa Shun'ei, was displayed in a case for a close up view. Perhaps the menu aspect of the offerings was giving these women new ideas. It could have had that effect on the initial consumers.

Indeed, all sorts of interpretations come to mind for the original function of the objects on view. But, interpretations of artifacts from foreign places and a distant time are always risky without some knowledge of the social and symbolic context. On those subjects, the catalogue of the Paris show is quite reticent. The authors evoke the new appetite of "petites gens" for an easily accessible popular culture, the willingness of artists to respond to it and of publishers to make it affordable. But why this popular culture turned to the "floating world" for its subject matter, and how its artifacts functioned in the society, is not fully disclosed.

It would seem that the world of prostitution Japanese-style is inseparable from societal changes in Japan in the course of the 17th and 18th century and the emergence of the mass city. For the mass city created a new class of men (or vice versa) -- commoners active in trades such as publishing, art making, fashion and other handicrafts. They commuted between the country and the city without their wives, sometimes staying in the city for several years before being replaced and sent back home.

Not only did this situation facilitate the birth of pleasure quarters, but it gave to those pleasure quarters a unique character. There, the social constraints of normal life were thrown by the wayside, hierarchies were dismantled, and the warrior and the commoner became subject to the same code of Hari behavior.

And, of course, all of the senses could be indulged, and all the arts practiced. The singing and poetry that was heard through light partitions, the paintings on these partitions, the odor of aromatic teas and delicacies that emerged from the temporary stalls, the flower scented perfumes that exuded from the Geishas' flowing robes, contributed to what in the west we might call sexual foreplay.

Sex itself could be enjoyed either literally, or vicariously through the purchase of voyeuristic prints and paintings like those on view in Paris. Censored as "decadent" in the 19th century, Ukiyo-e were first rediscovered by Western artists looking for new ways of picturing the world. Nowadays, they also provide an invaluable introduction to a still distant world, a world of signs into which, as Roland Barthes discovered, the foreigner can only venture on tiptoe.

MICHÈLE C. CONE is a New York-based critic and historian. Her latest book is French Modernisms: Perspectives on Art before, during and after Vichy (Cambridge 2001).