Sunday, February 24, 2008

Drama and Desire: Japanese Paintings from the Floating World 1690–1850

Living only for the moment, turning our full attention to the pleasures of the moon, the snow, the cherry blossoms and the maple leaves; singing songs, drinking wine, diverting ourselves in just floating, floating: caring not a whit for the pauperism staring us in the face, refusing to be disheartened, like a gourd floating along with the river current: this is what we call the floating world . . .
—Tales of the Floating World (Ukiyo Monogatari),
approx. 1661, by Asai Ryoi

They lived for the moment: beautiful geisha, flamboyant actors, seductive courtesans. Meet the denizens of the "Floating World"—the theater and pleasure quarters of Japan's Edo period. The art of ukiyo-e ("pictures of the floating world"), originated in the metropolitan culture of Edo (Tokyo) during the period of Japanese history, when the political and military power was in the hands of the shoguns, and the country was virtually isolated from the rest of the world. It is an art closely connected with the pleasures of theatres, restaurants, teahouses, geisha and courtesans in the even then very large city. Many ukiyo-e prints by artists like Utamaro and Sharaku were in fact posters, advertising theatre performances and brothels, or idol portraits of popular actors and beautiful teahouse girls.

Paintings by masters of the era—Hokusai, Hiroshige, and others—captured the lives of the Floating World in vivid detail. Now, for the first time in more than 100 years, view 80 of these rare exquisite paintings from the unrivaled collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Mingle with beauties in an intimate world of sumptuous colors and stylish surroundings.

Strolling through this exhibit of exquisite images was a fabulous way to spend a rainy afternoon. It’s a glimpse of a world that I find both seductive and exotic and the work could not be more beautifully displayed. Of course, I'm glad that I was not a woman of the time whose family - because of poverty - sold their daughters into brothels. No matter how gorgeous the gowns or how glamorous the facade, beneath it was a world of debt, obligation, poverty and oppression. The life of a courtesan was brief and her end was almost always tragic. But - like many eras that were harsh and cruel, artists created amazing art, graphic designs that are still fresh and strong today. I can imagine what it must have been for Manet or Van Gogh or Toulouse-Lautrec to see these prints for the first time. They were a revelation that created an artistic revolution.

(Images from the Asian Museum Web Site)

Additional Resources:

Asian Art Museum, SF, February 15–_May 4, 2008

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