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

From August 28 to December 16, 2007 The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA) mounted an exhibition of 80 works drawn from their collection of 700 ukiyo-e paintings: Drama and Desire: Japanese Paintings from the Floating World, 1690–1850. When it reached Japan, it became clear this is the finest collection anywhere in the world. From February 15 through May 4 2008, the exhibition was shown at the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, the last leg of its two-year world tour.

(click on the small image for full screen image with captions.)

Ukiyo-e [yoo-kee-oh-ey] is translated as “pictures of the floating world,” and generally refers to the genre of Japanese woodblock print featuring motifs of seasonal landscapes, historic tales, the theater, and the high-class red-light district — these themes being themselves examples of the floating world, the impermanence of life. (Think for a moment of the lyrics to “Row, row, row your boat” and you’ll catch the idea behind “floating world,” an idea which also resonates with Buddhist nondualism: nirvana is no different from samsara.) These prints, being “multiples”, made art available for the common person, but also risked later winding up as filler for packing a crate, hence retarding their appreciation in the West as a cherishable art. Today, however, such eminent ukiyo-e artists as Hiroshige, Harunobu, Hokusai, and Utamaro are known by name, so we can now really appreciate their paintings, a major source of income for them, and in which their marvelous vision and stunning technical skills finds fullest expression.

As we know, ukiyo-e blossomed in Kyoto, Osaka and Tokyo (then “Edo”) beginning in the 17th century. In Edo, then one of the world’s largest cities, citizens lived literally under military rule (the shogunate compound, with its vast retinue, being situated up above). Naturally, there was a dynamic between public and private life, as well as class difference. So when an occasion arose, people let off steam and went out: to enjoy music or thrill to a favorite actor at a theater (kabuki), or to get together to write haiku, and maybe now and then pay a visit to the Yoshiwara Pleasure Quarter, if only to gawk at the spectacle of the trend-setting courtesans and their retinue. Drama and Desire is divided into three sections reflecting these popular activities: Enjoyments of the Four Seasons; Dance, Drama and Kabuki; and The Pleasure Quarters, Courtesans, and Geisha.

Merchants, samurai, and even the imperial family would commission ukiyo-e artists who depicted these everyday milieux to paint special screens and scrolls for them. Composed on silk or paper, the paints were mineral and vegetable pigments bound with glue binder, and their ink was carbon from soot. Very fragile, such scrolls and screens weren’t meant for display. They’re highly refined and delicate, plus sensitive to light, shown on particular occasions only.

Fig. 1

Yet they rebuff any quick viewing. Firstly, their pigments forbade painting over, as a Western artist might do, so the design must be carefully devised in advance, and is the first thing one notices. Then one can appreciate the spontaneity of the execution, one time only (yet another dimension to the “floating world” idea). Then, looking closer, subtle, telling details in execution are a joy to discover. As MFA curator Anne Nishimura Morse expressed to during the press preview, they reveal themselves over time. Quite so. Consider, for example, Woman Looking at Herself in a Mirror (about 1805, relatively early in the career of Katsushika Hokusai [figure 1]). Her back is to us but the picture plane is offset with the mirror’s alternate plane, reflecting her muted facial expression; looking very closely, we can detect a brownish cherry substance in her mouth, a medicinal cure for hysteria. She seems to bite it as if looking forward to a night out.

The pattern on her outer kimono is all hand-done, as it twists in and out of folds. Nuance of value is highlighted in delicate white-on-white on the figure, contrasting with the black and brown of her wooden stand. Look sideways at the painting and you’ll see the shine of mica and gold, (“sparkly” being almost an aesthetic category of its own in Japan). Finally, looking carefully one notices the neutral-seeming background actually has a pinkish aura, from the backing behind the painting, soaking through the material of the scroll itself, as if faintly blushing.

Fig. 2

Such keen expressivity and finesse could only be hinted at in a woodblock (a medium given to execution by apprentices), but in painting Hokusai gave free rein to his eccentric genius. Complementing that work, on an opposite wall of the Asian Art Museum is his very poignant picture of Li Bai viewing a waterfall [fig 2], painted as Hokusai approached 100 years. Both waterfalls and the lives of the poets were common themes of the day. But the viewers witnessing a waterfall within a landscape, lending perspective to the scene, were usually depicted at eye-level to the viewer, seen picnicking perhaps along the banks with bento boxes. Here, the viewer within the landscape, Li Bai, stands at the bottom corner of the frame, almost trembling, gazing up at a colossal waterfall, whose force is rendered as near abstraction, 3,000 feet of falling water flying down Mt. Lu, as if the Milky Way had fallen from the skies.

Fig. 3

Other objets d’art by Hokusai include a pair of paper lanterns he adorned with traditional tiger and dragon motifs [fig 1], the cylindrical form underscoring their inter-relation, yin-yang. Plus there’s his bold portrait of Zhong Kui [Shoki], this deity all in vermillion on rough cotton, not a scroll but a a banner intended to wave in the wind inspiring confidence on Boy’s Day.

Besides Enjoyments of the Four Seasons, which occupies one room of the Asian Art Museum, Dance, Drama and Kabuki and The Pleasure Quarters, Courtesans, and Geisha takes up another gallery. At the entrance to the latter stands a wild eight-panel phoenix by Hokusai [fig 4], inviting the imagination to spread its wings and soar.

Fig. 4

The theater posters are some of the earliest ever done and are very striking, in bold design and bright primary colors. One poster is intriguing in combining a number of scenes, one familiar to the theater-goer of the day, one as yet unknown. Portraits of leading actors of the day might seem today like the equivalent of a fan’s posters, except they’re unique originals. One wall is taken up by a a pair of large screens by Hishikawa Moronobu: Scenes from the the Nakamura Kabuki Theater and the Yoshiwara Pleasure Quarter. It’s an apt juxtaposition. Just as the theater had its box seats for the upper classes, and lower tier for the plebians, so too were the courtesan “stars” ranked into grades. Only a few could even dream of the courtesans at the top, much less afford them: yet they might commission a painting to take back as a souvenir of their visit to the walled pleasure quarter, where the parade of beauties was a carefully choreographed spectacle. (If the clothes in this painting seem exceptional, by the way, chalk it up to Moronobu coming from a family of embroiderers.)

Fig. 5

A painting by Hokusai’s daughter, Katsushika Oi, Three Women Playing Musical Instruments [fig 5] depicts a courtesan, a geisha, and an apprentice, seated in a circle. Each clearly distinguishable by their clothing, they flow together in a sensuous ecstasy of music. Yet the painter, being a woman, seems conscious of what their life had to be like. Look carefully at the red fabric on the underside of the central figure, the courtesan with her back to us, and you’ll see butterflies; zoom in and you’ll see white lines: spiderwebs, the literal underside of a costume becoming figurative as well, hinting at unseen subterranean dangers.

Controlled spontaneity, detail, and especially the role of backgrounds, are all integral to the show’s erotic paintings (shungha) [figs 6-9], a fractional selection of the hundred from Dr. Bigelow’s collection. The mere idea of collecting them, back then, was unheard-of; and, until 1985, only male curators were given a key to see them. Needless to say, they are ... fascinating.

Fig. 6

Fig. 7

Fig. 8

Fig. 9

It’s quite an impressive exhibition. Given that so many of these works have never been shown since acquisition, they look as vivid and fresh as if painted only yesterday. We must credit Dr. William Sturgis Bigelow (1850–1926) who’d purchased hundreds of artworks for the Museum of Fine Arts. Apparently, he escaped a dysfunctional household and went to Paris to study under Louis Pasteur. Japonisme was all the rage there, and he soon visited Japan with Ernest Fenollosa. Dr. Bigelow wound up staying for seven years, and took refuge in the Dharma. This was just after Japan ended her long policy of isolation, so there weren’t many collectors to compete with. He’d often travel with Okakura Kakuzo, who became the MFA’s curator of Japanese art. Until recently, it was believed Messrs. Fenollosa and Okakura were Bigelow’s sources as to what to buy, (they were instrumental in Japan’s designating works as national treasures), but today we realize how much Bigelow was his own man.

In 1996–7, a team of Japanese scholars joined the MFA to catalogue their holdings of ukiyo-e paintings for the first time. Not only did they discover they had the finest collection anywhere in the world, but a re-evaluation of Japanese art history is now possible, and necessary.

For those unable to attend the exhibition, special thanks are owed to MFA curator Anne Nishimura Morse who edited the catalogue. With essays and contributions by leading scholars of Japanese art, it will be considered a touchstone for decades to come.

- Gary Gach