by Roderick Conway Morris

| | | | | | | | | | | | |
British Museum, London
Utamakura (Poem of the Pillow) by Kitagawa Utamaro, 1788

Pleasure in the Floating World

By Roderick Conway Morris
MILAN 17 April 2004


'Living only for the moment, turning our full attention to the pleasures of the moon, sun, the cherry blossoms and the maple leaves, singing songs, drinking wine, and diverting ourselves just in floating, floating.'

Thus, in around 1660 (and in Richard Lane's translation) Asai Ryoi evoked the life of the pleasure districts of old Edo. The paintings and prints, 'ukiyo-e,' or 'Pictures of the Floating World,' that recorded the daily and nightly diversions of this magical other realm came to be for the rest of the world the most instantly recognizable and characteristic of all the Japanese arts. And it was above all through ukiyo-e that Japanese artists spread their influence far beyond the shores of the archipelago.

Following the impressive exhibition dedicated to Hokusai at the Palazzo Reale four years ago, Gian Carlo Calza has now curated at the same venue 'Ukiyo-e,' a sumptuous 'tour d'horizon' of images from the Floating World, from its beginnings in the 17th century to its last days in the mid-19th century. Among the more than 500 pieces there are some classic icons by the likes of Utamaro, Hokusai and Hiroshige, but there are also scores of unfamiliar works of superlative quality, many of which have never been shown in Europe before, including a large pair of rare early screens from the Honolulu Museum of Art. (The exhibition continues until May 30.)

Although the origins of this type of painting and woodblock printing can be traced back to the imperial capital, Kyoto, and neighboring Osaka at the beginning of the 17th century, this genre would never have floated free in the extraordinary way that it did had the first Shoguns not decided to establish a new capital at Edo, now Tokyo.

Edo was in essence a gigantic military headquarters, placed in a central position with the aim of controlling the newly unified country. This might not seem to have offered the most promising ground for the development of an art form reflecting self-indulgence and exotic frivolity, but Edo had some unusual aspects.

The Shoguns imposed a system of 'alternating residence' on their 'daimyo,' or vassal lords. These rulers were obliged to spend one year in their feudal domains, followed by one year at Edo. To guarantee their loyalty, when they left the city, they had to leave their wives and families there as hostages.

This created a situation in which, on the one hand, feudal lords were regularly required to spend long periods in Edo, sometimes with a retinue of hundreds of samurai and other retainers who left their own families in the provinces, and, on the other, aristocratic wives and their growing children had to while away months and years in gilded luxury during the husband's extended absences.

The solution to keeping this large deracinated population happy was to let them enjoy a wide range of entertainment, of which the new Kabuki popular theater soon became a favorite. As early as 1617, a pleasure district - which came to be called Yoshiwara - was officially designated, in which theaters, tea-houses, taverns, restaurants and brothels rapidly multiplied. After a major fire in 1657, Shin Yoshiwara, or new Yoshiwara, was established a little farther out of town.

The Kabuki theater was one of the primary stimulants of the ukiyo-e, leading to commissions for artists to paint pictures of leading actors and publicity posters for plays, and in time interior views of the playhouses and even of the actors' dressing rooms as they frantically prepared themselves to go on stage. This attracted artists and craftsmen from all over Japan, and the subject matter soon expanded to embrace every activity of the Floating World. Later these urban masters of the woodblock print turned their attention to an ever wider range of themes, notably nature, landscape and even rural scenes, especially those glimpsed on the trunk routes linking Edo and Kyoto.

The first color prints, using a very restricted palette but handled with enormous artistry, appeared in 1741, and from then on techniques became more and more complex until full-blown polychromatic prints, by this time of almost incredible finesse, became possible. This kind of print-making was an intensely cooperative venture. To maintain their edge in a highly competitive market, the owners of the printing houses brought together writers and poets to provide texts and ideas, the best artists they could find and craftsmen capable of translating even the most subtle and suggestive lines into printable form. In many ways, this intimate teamwork anticipated the kind of relationships that came to exist in film, the final upshot being the product of several talents.

Nor do the similarities with 20th-century cinema end there. The actors and most glamorous of the courtesans, whose fashions in clothes and accessories were assiduously followed, were the stars and celebrities of the times, their images achieving through mass production a scale of distribution previously inconceivable. Scenes from the Floating World also fueled fantasies as surely as the cinema and television do today.

The majority of those who bought these prints were of modest means and would probably never meet the idols they depicted, and while many of these fans might fall in love with the actors or chic women that the ukiyo-e prints portrayed, and perhaps imagine themselves taking part in private parties, they gazed into this world from its margins.

From the beginning, books of erotic prints, a judicious selection of which appear in the show, constituted an important slice of the ukiyo-e market. As long as publishers did not involve themselves in politics, they enjoyed considerable freedom. As Timon Screech emphasizes in his persuasive essay in the catalogue, in contrast with the West there was no opprobrium attached to masturbation - which, given the vast army of singles of both sexes and spouses separated from their partners in Edo - can be assumed to have been widespread, and erotic books were discreetly sold for the purposes of enhancing solitary pleasure.

The quality of these 'shunga,' 'images of spring' as they were euphemistically dubbed, varied enormously. Many were frankly crude, and remained monochrome long after color printing came in, but others were executed by the finest artists and would have been far from cheap. The former grade fulfilled the role of 'adult' magazines today, while the latter might be included in a blushing bride's trousseau to put her in the picture as to what to expect on her wedding night, or purchased as marital aids. The images themselves bear witness to the fact that various other marital aids were also available, as do surviving illustrated advertisements for sex toys.

The final section of the show traces changing conventions in the depiction of female beauty and contains some of the most vibrant images. Here, we feel, is a society notionally dominated by men, but at the same time enslaved by beautiful women. And here, too, we find a double-sided print by Utamaro, that supreme Japanese celebrant of woman. The two images show the bewitching Ohisa seen from front and back, elegantly swaying as she walks, the outlines of the figure perfectly matching on either side of the paper - an astonishing technical feat of engraving and printing and a breathtaking work of art.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023