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by Fred Stern
"Designed for Pleasure: The World of Edo Japan in Prints and Paintings, 1680-1860," Feb. 27-May 4, 2008, at the Asia Society Museum, 725 Park Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10021

In 1630 the Tokugawa Shogunate, which had overthrown 250 feudal lords and launched a widespread reorganization of Japanese society, licensed the pleasure quarters of Kyoto and Edo (modern Tokyo). In Edo, the Yoshiwara "red light" district was alive with luxurious establishments, and included a theater district, shops, refreshment stands and restaurants. The growing urban audience sparked a flowering of literature, poetry, fashion, design and fine art, as well as a development of a class of professional female entertainers, the geisha.

This was the ukiyo, the "floating world," which as the term suggests reflected a view of human experience as transitory -- the assumption that since nothing in life is assured, it is best to go your way floating on the thoughts and emotions of the moment. At a time when 90 percent of Japan’s population was Buddhist, ukiyo was an integral part of Buddhist philosophy.

"Designed for Pleasure" at the Asia Society includes works by the great artists Utagawa (Ando) Hiroshige, Katsushika Hokusai and Katagawa Utamaro. But the show also favors a new galaxy of artists active in the beginning of the period, first in Kyoto and later in Edo.

In keeping with the exhibition’s theme, it is not surprising that much of the show deals with the denizens of the Yoshiwara. The elegant courtesans of the district were chronicled in prints and posters, which were in their way like our pin-ups. A careful eye can see many subtle variations in the artistic renderings of these "glamour girls," the styling of the hair and structure and sweep of the comb, the color of the surroundings, the rendering of the kimono.

A complement to these works are the prints, paintings and pillar posters (long, narrow banners that could be attached to pillars) of actors of the Kabuki and No plays. Landscapes constitute a third group of works in the exhibition, as by the mid-18th century Japanese artists were demonstrating their expertise at rendering perspective, a technique that had been acquired by studying works by Dutch artists.

By the end of the 1700s, ukiyo-e woodblock prints had become quite elaborate, with exquisite detail and color. The process required a number of skilled artisans, including designers to lay out the initial patterns, carvers to cut images into as many as 10 or more different blocks and, of course, printers. A publisher coordinated the various steps in production and handled sales to print shops. The prints were priced to be within the means of the average Japanese.

Although it would be hard to pinpoint an originator of the ukiyo-e "industry," two artists can certainly share this palm. One is Hishikawa Moronobu (1630-1694) and the other Okumura Masanobu (1686-1764). A handsome scroll by Moronobu from the late 1680s, titled A Visit to the Yoshiwara, provides an intriguing glimpse of demimondes on display in the quarter. Standing Beauty, a hanging scroll of ink and color on silk, features a superb kimono with intricate designs superimposed on a carmine colored surface.

Masanobu painted and published albums featuring courtesans, and pillar prints with actors from Kabuki and No plays. One of his most famous renderings, on loan from the San Francisco Museum of Asian Art, is A Floating World Monkey Trainer on the Sumida River, in which an adventurous monkey is shown at the keel of the boat. A lively coterie of women accompanies him. Like many of the prints, this one has a haiku poem lettered along its edge. Tongue-in-cheek, Masanobu pairs his courtesans with an impish looking Daruma, one of the founders of Buddhism. It is a delightful hand-colored woodcut from the 1710s.

In another hanging scroll, Beauty Reading a Letter, we see a courtesan utterly involved in reading. The richly kimonoed lady is perfectly posed with her head tilted forward, the paper held in her elegant hands. The scroll is by Katsukawa Shunsho, whose work appealed primarily to the upper classes, including the samurai of the late 18th century.

Two basic forms of theater flourished during this era: the Kabuki, whose dance and song dramas were favored by the masses; and the No theater, which had lyrical dramas based on ancient and classic legends, and a more aristocratic appeal. Actors in both No and Kabuki received the kind of attention and accolades we accord to today’s cinema and rock stars. Although the original Kabuki actors were women, the Tokugawa, noting that the actresses often made overtures to their male audience, later insisted that only men could act in these dramas.

Prominent among the artists who concentrated on actor portraits was T. Sharaku, thought to have been a No actor himself. His entire output appears to have been crafted in a ten-month period during 1794-95. In his masterful study Chats on Japanese Prints, Arthur Davidson Ficke speaks of Sharaku as "having pierced the weak, the grotesque, the pathetic, the tragic," a description that presages as well the work of an artist like Diane Arbus.

In terms of landscape, "Designed for Pleasure" includes many of the most famous icons of ukiyo-e Japan. Ando Hiroshige’s Driving Rain depicts a group of porters in bamboo hats fending off a heavy rain in a magnificent landscape. Hokusai’s Under the Wall of the Great Wave off Kanagawa (sometimes called The Breaking Wave), which arguably is the most famous Japanese print in the world, shows its three fragile fishing boats bravely riding out a stormy sea, with Mount Fuji standing placidly in the distance.

In its declining years, the Tokugawa changed its laissez-faire attitude toward the pleasures of the Floating World. The rulers went so far as to prohibit the painting of Kabuki actors and the demimonde of Yoshiwara and Osaka. In the 1860s Japanese society began another transformation, as the warlord dynasty failed and commodore Matthew C. Perry and the U.S. fleet reopened Japan to world trade. Hachimoto Sadahide (1807-1878) captured the arrival of Commodore Perry in such paintings as Foreign Trade Establishments in Yokohama and two other refreshingly original prints.

Though the ukiyo-e era was drawing to a close in Japan, Japanese woodblocks were only beginning to exert a global influence, notably on French Impressionism. Taken for granted by the Japanese, the prints were even used as packing materials for shipping fragile goods to the West. French artists were quick to recognize the quality of the woodblocks. Claude Monet kept ukiyo-e prints on the walls of his home in Giverny. Take a look at Tolouse-Lautrec’s posters of cabaret singers Aristide Briant and Yvonne Guilbert. You will instantly see shadows of Hiroshige’s work.

FRED STERN writes on art and antiques.