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The World of Edo Japan

A new exhibition at Asia Society captures the fleeting sensuality within the theaters, teahouses and brothels of Edo during the 17th and 18th centuries.

A Medley of Tales of Revenge Toshusai Sharaku
A woodcut from the play, “A Medley of Tales of Revenge,” by Toshusai Sharaku

In the theaters, teahouses and brothels of Edo, pleasure was a serious business. For a period during the 17th and 18th centuries, the urban area now known as Tokyo was the world’s largest city, with entire districts catering to the needs of wealthy samurai and a rising merchant class. Both groups acquired a taste for ukiyo-e, paintings and woodcuts that depicted ukiyo, the “floating world” of leisure and luxury. Ukiyo-e could be idealized images of courtesans, portraits of actors and celebrated beauties, or lavishly illustrated books of poetry.

A woodcut attributed to Sugimura Jihei
A woodcut attributed to Sugimura Jihei

A new exhibition at Asia Society, “Designed for Pleasure: The World of Edo Japan in Prints and Paintings, 1680-1860,” anchors the floating world firmly in economic and social reality. The show includes works by well-known artists, including Hokusai and Hiroshige, but also emphasizes the entrepreneurial role of print publishers and the relationship between printmaking, painting and literature in the Edo period.

Yoshiwara Pleasure Quarter
A detail from “Yoshiwara Pleasure Quarter,” attributed to Hishikawa Moronobu

Many of the artists who produced ukiyo-e, traditionally seen as a lower form of culture, also made paintings for elite patrons. On display in the first gallery, Hishikawa Moronobu’s 55-foot hand-painted scroll, “A Visit to the Yoshiwara” (late-1680s), is a floating world unto itself. Yoshiwara was the pleasure center of Edo, a place where the samurai could unwind among elegant, well-trained courtesans.

A Large Perspective Picture of a Second-floor Parlor in the New Yoshiwara, Looking Toward the Embankment
“A Large Perspective Picture of a Second-floor Parlor in the New Yoshiwara, Looking Toward the Embankment” by Okumura Masanobu, circa 1745

Moronobu is regarded as the founder of ukiyo-e, but the 18th-century artist Okumura Masanobu was the first of several aggressively self-promoting artist-printmakers. Masanobu took credit for innovations like the use of European one-point perspective, seen in a hand-colored woodcut from 1745 that shows a busy second-floor parlor in Yoshiwara.

Courtesan of the Motoya and Client Disguised as an Itinerant Monk
“Courtesan of the Motoya and Client Disguised as an Itinerant Monk” by Suzuki Harunobu (1770)

Later artists introduced more complex print processes involving multiple colors. A section of “Designed for Pleasure” is devoted to Suzuki Harunobu, the first to make full-color prints.

A woodcut by Katsushika Hokusai
A woodcut by Katsushika Hokusai

The literary context of ukiyo-e becomes especially apparent in a gallery of works from the circle of the celebrated Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849). Commissions for luxury paintings and prints often came as a result of connections made at poetry parties, where crowds of artists, writers, actors and other creative types would gather to compose ribald poems known as “mad verse.”

Under the Well of the Great Wave Off Kanagawa by Katsushika Hokusai
“Under the Well of the Great Wave Off Kanagawa” by Katsushika Hokusai

Ukiyo-e became a booming industry later in the 19th century, with healthy competition between artists like Hokusai and Utagawa Kunisada (1786-1865). Landscapes sold particularly well, and several famous examples are included in this section: Hokusai’s “Great Wave,” as well as Hiroshige’s “Sudden Shower at Ohashi Bridge” from his portfolio “100 Views of Famous Places of Edo.” The intense colors of many of the works come from synthetic, Western pigments like Prussian Blue, which were introduced during this period.

Via N.Y. Times

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