Now through May 25th, rare artworks from the world’s largest and finest collection of ukiyo-e paintings
By Seán Martinfield
Sentinel Fine Arts Critic
Photo by Lynn Imanaka
The “floating world”— Edo Japan’s urban pleasure quarters of Kabuki theaters and high-class brothels —was a place of fantasy, where drama and desire unfolded. It was out of this atmosphere that ukiyo-e (pronounced yoo-kee-oh-ey) painting emerged during the late seventeenth century and continued to flourish until the end of the Edo period (1615–1868). These pictures of flamboyant actors, seductive courtesans, and beautiful geisha are the subject of DRAMA AND DESIRE : Japanese Paintings from the Floating World, 1690-1850, on view at the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco from February 15th through May 4th, 2008.
Pleasure Outing at Mukojima to View Cherry Blossoms, 1781–1801. By Utagawa Toyoharu, 1735–1814. Hanging scroll; ink, color, gold, and mica on silk.
The landmark exhibition features 80 artworks from the unrivaled holdings of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA), widely regarded as the proprietor of the largest and finest collection of ukiyoe-e paintings in the world. The paintings of major ukiyo-e masters—including Hokusai, Utamaro, and Hiroshige—will be showcased in the form of screens, scrolls, banners, and theatrical signboards. Many of these have not been on view for more than 100 years. As the final venue for the exhibition’s world-wide tour, the Asian Art Museum provides the last opportunity to view these paintings before they are returned to storage for safekeeping.
Courtesans with Snow, Moon, and Flowers – Kansei era
(1789–1801), by Ichiryusai Utagawa Toyoharu. Set of three
hanging scrolls; ink, color, cold, and mica on silk.
According to Asian Art Museum Director Emily Sano, “With its focus on the pleasure quarters and theater districts of the floating world, Drama and Desire explores the intriguing cultural aspects of Edo-period Japan that have so fascinated the West. The exhibition provides something for everyone: exquisitely detailed, sumptuous paintings of geishas and courtesans in kimonos; rare artworks by some of the most famous artists of the period, including Hokusai, Hiroshige and Utamaro; plus examples of shunga (erotica) for those who enjoy their art a little more risqué. The fragile nature of the artworks allows for limited viewing—the exhibition is truly a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to view these superb paintings.”
Collection of Suggestive Pictures – by Katsukawa Shuncho (1781-1801). Handscroll;
ink, colors, gold, and mica on silk.
Edo (modern-day Tokyo), which was founded in the early seventeenth century as a feudal military enclave by the shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu, was known as the “castle town under heaven.” During the next 100 years, it developed into the country’s major political and commercial center. By the mid-eighteenth century, Edo was one of the largest cities in the world, with more than one million inhabitants, but it was still very much a brutish, male-dominated society. To escape from the hardships of daily life and to suspend reality if only for a moment, the male residents of Edo would go to theaters in the city or travel to the Yoshiwara—a gated, licensed brothel district located on the outskirts. There they could engage in pleasurable pursuits, which included attending Kabuki theater and musical presentations, composing poetry as part of literary groups, and rendezvousing with courtesans at well-appointed houses of assignation (ageya). These places were also known collectively as the “floating world.”
Scenes from the Nakamura Kabuki Theater. Attributed to Hishikawa Moronobu (died 1694). One of a pair of six-panel folding screens. Ink and color on gold-leafed paper.
Against this lively backdrop, a new genre of painting—ukiyo-e—developed. Masters of ukiyo-e depicted everyday activities of the city’s inhabitants and detailed the stylish preoccupations of the pleasure quarters. While a Western audience is more familiar with the mass-produced woodblock prints of this era, artists of the time also created carefully executed colorful paintings for their more affluent patrons. These paintings depict elegant interiors with beautifully dressed courtesans, expressive portraits of Kabuki actors, and detailed accounts of contemporary life in Edo. Generally commissioned by wealthy merchants, samurai families, and even members of the imperial family, the paintings in Drama and Desire reveal the unique style and splendor of an art that celebrates one of the most alluring aspects of Japanese culture.
Japanese ukiyo-e paintings were executed on paper and silk using mineral pigments with a glue binder for paints and carbon from soot for inks. Fragile and sensitive to light, they were not meant for permanent display. Screens and hanging scrolls were shown only at specific times of the year. Handscrolls were treated as books to be brought out and enjoyed intimately, then put away. The exclusive nature and fragility of the ukiyo-e paintings account for their rarity today.
Three Women Playing Musical Instruments. By Katsushika Oi (active about 1818–after 1854). Hanging scroll; ink and color on silk.
To order tickets on-line: DRAMA AND DESIRE
To order the accompanying catalog: Drama and Desire: Japanese Paintings from the Floating World 1690-1850. Published by MFA Publications and edited by MFA curator Anne Nishimura Morse, the book features essays and contributions by leading scholars of Japanese art. The fully illustrated catalog is available at the Asian Art Museum store. ($55 hardcover; $37.50 softcover.) For more information, call: 415-581-3600 or e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
The ASIAN ART MUSEUM is a public institution whose mission is to lead a diverse global audience in discovering the unique material, aesthetic, and intellectual achievements of Asian art and culture. Holding nearly 17,000 Asian art treasures spanning 6,000 years of history, the museum is one of the largest museums in the Western world devoted exclusively to Asian art. Once located in Golden Gate Park, the museum now resides at its new, expanded facility at Civic Center Plaza. An architectural gem featuring a dynamic blend of beaux arts and modern design elements, the museum’s new home is the result of a dramatic transformation of San Francisco’s former main library building by renowned architect Gae Aulenti (designer of Paris’s Musée d’Orsay) into a showcase for the museum’s acclaimed collection and exhibitions
For information on how to join with the Asian Art Museum: MEMBERSHIP
Get your schools involved! AAM’s interactive school tours are designed to complement the California History–Social Science and Visual Arts Content Standards. For each visit, teachers receive pre-visit materials designed to enhance the students’ museum experience. All school tours are offered free of charge and must be scheduled with the Education department in advance. All programs have limited availability and are subject to change. Click here for more information: SCHOOL TOURS
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Seán Martinfield is a native San Franciscan. He is a Theatre Arts Graduate from San Francisco State University, a professional singer, and well-known private vocal coach to Bay Area actors and singers of all ages and persuasions. His clients have appeared in Broadway National Tours including Wicked, Aïda, Miss Saigon, Rent, Bye Bye Birdie, in theatres and cabarets throughout the Bay Area, and are regularly featured in major City events including Diva Fest, Gay Pride, and Halloween In The Castro. As an Internet consultant in vocal development and audition preparation he has published thousands of responses to those seeking his advice concerning singing techniques, professional and academic auditions, and careers in the Performing Arts. Mr. Martinfield’s Broadway clients have all profited from his vocal methodology, “The Belter’s Method”, which is being prepared for publication. If you want answers about your vocal technique, post him a question on AllExperts.com. If you would like to build up your vocal performance chops and participate in the Bay Area’s rich theatrical scene, e-mail him at: email@example.com.
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