“Designed for Pleasure: The World of Edo Japan in Prints and Paintings, 1680-1860” at the Asia Society

Okumura Masanobu, Large Perspective Picture of a Second-Floor Parlor in the New Yoshiwara, Looking Toward the Embankment (1975), hand-colored woodblock print; courtesy The Asia Society

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Designed for Pleasure: The World of Edo Japan in Prints and Paintings, 1680-1860 is a trying experience because the awe it elicits is unremitting. Has there been a New York exhibition quite as beautiful?

The show is devoted to the art of a society all but isolated from outside influence. The city of Edo (now Tokyo) was established as Japan’s seat of power, having been transferred from Kyoto by the Tokugawa shogunate, or military government. Under its rule, Edo became the world’s largest city, and a thriving commercial and artistic center.

The exhibition was curated by the Japanese Art Society of America, formerly known as the Ukiyo-e Society. “Ukiyo” translates literally as “floating world”; essayist David Waterhouse defines it metaphorically as yielding to the attractions of the theater and (as he politely puts it) “pleasure quarters.” Most of the pictures depict immaculately poised courtesans.

With the exception of Katsukawa Shunshō’s Encounter at Night (1788)—wherein a couple with exaggerated genitalia tussle under an invasive beam of light—eroticism is implied, albeit with silky emphasis. Hishikawa Moronobu’s A Visit to the Yoshiwara (c. 1680), a 55-foot-long scroll of which only part is displayed, is a fleeting and surprisingly tender mise-en-scène of a brothel. Virtually indistinguishable landscapes appear in the distance and as ornamental designs on a series of screens. This blurring of different realities contributes to the work’s dusky quietude.

Comedy and etiquette work in tandem in Okūmara Māsonobou’s Inside the Bag, the Pleasure Quarters (c. 1710), a woodcut print in which one of the Seven Gods of Good Fortune opens a roiling bag revealing a miniaturist diorama of courtesans. For the most part, elegance is the norm and sensuality is put into place through sloping rhythms—all but discernible arabesques and the precise synchronization of gesture. Sex isn’t just a rich man’s commodity, but a ritual of artifice and desire.

Suzuki Harunobu, in collaboration with the poet Okubo Jinshiro Tadanobu, elaborated upon the mannerisms of style and theater. His series of color woodblock prints, collectively titled The Eight Parlor Views (1766), are a mitate—a play on established themes—of the Xiao and Xiang rivers in China, a subject long-explored by poets and painters. The landscape, we read, is transposed into interiors occupied by two courtesans. How this motif is shifted will be a mystery to those not versed in Japanese symbolism. We’ll have to make do with an exquisite range of tawny colors and a mellow air of intimacy and solitude. They’re not bad things to settle for.

Mavens of pop culture will sit up and take notice when informed that ukiyo-e (the appended “e” means “pictures”)were an integral component of fashion and celebrity; it was, as David Pollack, professor of Japanese at Rochester University, bluntly puts it, “more or less blatant advertising.” Art and fashion have always fed off each other, but that’s not to say they’re the same thing.

High-end ukiyo-e were pitched to an elite clientele, largely samurai officials. The outrageously lavish kimono draped over Utagawa Kuniyoshi’s Hell Courtesan (c. 1850), a show-stopper in a show chock-full of them, would only have been available to the wealthy. But great art transcends circumstance. Consumer demand may have put artists in motion, but it didn’t define them. Given the exhibition’s consistency, it would appear that the strictures of the marketplace allowed for a pictorial freedom that might not have otherwise occurred for these artists.

The casual viewer is likely to recognize the names Utagawa Hiroshige and Katsushika Hokusai, the best-known artists of the Edo period. But notwithstanding the sumptuous musicality of Hokusai’s Five Beauties (1805-13), if either artist weren’t here, you wouldn’t miss him. Really, Katsukawa Shunshō’s Peony (c. 1770) is, if less Byzantine, then no less astonishing. Its portrayal of two women embracing, their kimonos forming an arousing tumble of skewed patterning, is an exquisite model of restraint and longing.

The sinuous beauty of Shunshō’s bijinga (pictures of beautiful women) are all the more amazing given their condition: They’re pristine, unfettered by time. This is pretty much true throughout the exhibition—we relish delicacy of color and meticulous surfaces as they were meant to be. The regard Japanese artists had for their materials—ink, wood grain and, not least, uninflected expanses of silk—is obvious. It’s like the things came out of the studio this morning.

The American flag waves surreptitiously at the top left of Hashimoto’s Sadahide’s Foreign Trading Establishments in Yokohama (1861), but Americans themselves are impossible to miss. By 1859, Yokohama had become a thriving port of trade, and the unifying dictates of the marketplace are evident in Sadahide’s complex two-tiered composition. Haggling is there to see, as are the frustrations bred by language barriers. But some barriers are easily overcome. A silent exchange occurs between an American woman and a courtesan. They consider each other as if they were confidantes. It’s an entrancing moment.

Designed for Pleasure will be a different exhibition after this weekend. Many of the pieces are light-sensitive and will be taken down to ensure their material integrity. The Asia Society will reopen April 5 with new pieces on display. Taking into account the curatorial acumen with which the exhibition has been organized, it’s a fair bet to say that it will be equally astonishing and, perhaps, better.

The Edo poet Funenoya Tsunahito wrote of spring’s arrival, and how “everywhere, for a thousand miles, people celebrate good fortune.” New Yorkers don’t have to travel that far, and for that we are blessed. Designed for Pleasure is a magnificent exhibition.

© 2008 Mario Naves

Originally published in the March 25, 2008 edition of The New York Observer.



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