Japan’s Floating World, SF

Two exhibits at the Asian Art Museum present beautiful works from the hedonistic society that dwelt in Tokyo's "floating world."

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Emily S. Mendel
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Two new excellent exhibitions about 17th- to 19th-century Japanese art and culture grace San Francisco’s well-respected Asian Art Museum, the largest museum in the United States devoted exclusively to the arts of Asia.

From 1615–1868, in Edo (now Tokyo), a city whose population reached one million by the beginning of the 1700s, there existed alluring pleasure and amusement quarters, replete with teahouses, shops, Kabuki theaters and brothels known as the “floating world.” The floating world, or ukiyo, stems from a common Buddhist expression that is akin to physical suffering. It was then inverted to mean a place of limitless indulgence, in the mind and in the physical world, and came to describe this hedonistic society.

The floating world’s rise to prominence was coexistent with the growth of a new merchant class who had money and time for leisure, and resulted in new artistic creations such as delicate paintings and textiles for the rich, and woodblock prints for the rest. These works spread knowledge of the city’s famous theaters and brothels. Among the popular themes were depictions of beautiful women, kabuki actors, flora and fauna, folk tales and erotica.

An island two miles away from the central district housed the floating world’s famed pleasure quarter, the Yoshiwara, a licensed brothel area of two acres, which catered to men of high rank who desired courtesans, and to those with lighter purses who frequented the less-refined brothels.

San Francisco’s Asian Art Museum delightful exhibit, “Seduction: Japan’s Floating World” contains almost 70 works by the Edo period’s outstanding artists, with paintings and a variety of objects from this world of sensual indulgences, all from the John C. Weber Collection, such as gorgeous Japanese robes, exquisite paintings, ceramics and other art objects, as well as an almost 58-foot-long handscroll shown for the first time in public.

In the Hambrecht Gallery, the 58-foot scroll, entitled “A Visit to the Yoshiwara” by the leading 17th-century artist of floating-world art, Hishikawa Moronobu, is a delicate, yet colorful, virtual tour of the area, and reveals, in highly idealized fashion, the elegant scenes, food, drink, dancing, furnishings, customs and women that comprised the Yoshiwara. The museum has helpfully provided written descriptions of all of the scenes of the scroll. For example, I first thought the lovely scene 56, described as a picture of courtesans breakfasting after their busy night, was of the women waiting for their male visitors. There is also an iPad app that magnifies all the details of the scroll.

Also in this gallery are items that are examples of objects drawn in the scroll, including an elaborately lacquered mirror, a luscious red silk outer robe and a surprisingly modern-looking rabbit-shaped incense burner.

The Osher Gallery focuses on “Intimacy, Fashion and Disguise,” and examines the life of the women of the Yoshiwara. Although the fantasy of the courtesan was widespread, most Yoshiwara women lived short and sad lives. On the other hand, three preliminary meetings, accompanied by payments and tips, were required to meet a high-level courtesan. These courtesans were celebrities and were praised in literature, paintings and woodblock prints. The hanging silk scroll, “Courtesan in her Boudoir” by Utagawa Toyokuni (1769–1825) of a courtesan with her hair down and her breasts bare is a fine example of the art of seduction.

Also found in the Osher Gallery are beautiful robes and paintings of famous Kabuki actors. Because women were not permitted on stage, some paintings show the male actors dressed as women, such as the scroll “Female Impersonator” by Nishikawa Terunobu (active approx. 1700–1750).

The second exhibit, “The Printer’s Eye: Ukiyo-e from the Grabhorn Collection” is a wonderful collection of woodblock prints that illustrate aspects of the floating world. Unlike the elaborate silk scrolls, the woodblocks were sold to the mass market, which enjoyed following the erotica, drama, literary themes, fashions and hair styles of the floating world. Despite the low prices at which the woodblock prints were sold, many of the prints are quite complex, in pristine condition, with gorgeous vibrant colors.

For those of us with Western sensibilities, taking pleasure in Japanese art may not come as naturally as does our admiration of American and European art. However, the Asian Art Museum’s two shows present beautiful art that is quite easy to enjoy. In addition, one gets the opportunity to learn about the fascinating floating world of Japan and to appreciate the artistic merit and beauty it created.

Emily S. Mendel
© Emily S. Mendel 2015 All Rights Reserved.

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