Forget about “Fifty Shades of Grey” (book and movie), little more than lowbrow trash masquerading as modern erotica. Every culture has spawned erotic entertainment, perhaps none as diverse and artful as that of 17th Century Japan. People have a rare chance to get an inside look at this vanished world, the “floating world” of Edo (now known as Tokyo). The Asian Art Museum of San Francisco features two complementary exhibits through May 10 which explore the entertainment centers of Edo. “Seduction: Japan’s Floating World” features more than 50 pieces, including robes, paintings and woodblock prints, on loan from John C. Walter. “The Printer’s Eye” showcases 88 woodblock prints from the Museum’s Edwin Grabhorn Collection. The two exhibits will be shown only at the Asian Art Museum.
The museum at 200 Larkin St. is open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays, with hours extended to 9 p.m. on Thursdays. Admission ranges from $15 for general admission to free for members and children under 12. A special rate of $5 is offered after 5 p.m. Thursdays. Admission is free for all on the first Sunday of each month. Information is available at 415-581-3500 or www.asianart.org.
Curator Laura Allen explains, “The term “floating world,” or ukiyo, has its origins in Buddhist texts, where a homophone combining characters for “sorrow” and “world” was used to imply the suffering caused by desire, the chief impediment to enlightenment.” Redactionists then substituted a character meaning “to float” for the one for “sorrow” and thus created a “floating world” where desire was never denied. This “floating world” was centered in the brothels and Kabuki theaters of Edo, an area with a million residents in search of pleasure. Artists passed along knowledge of this famous world through prints and woodblocks depicting theater celebrities and activities in the more than 100 brothels. In this erotic world the sharp class divisions of Edo society disappeared and all gave way to sheer indulgence of physical and sexual appetites.
As described in “A Guide to Love in the Yoshikura” the prints and paintings were designed to arouse, both those who visited the pleasure centers and those who knew of them only from inexpensive blockprints. “Join us, the pictures call, inspect the goods, spend some money (outspend your rivals!), eat, drink and carouse in the company of an attractive partner. Remember the fun you had before? Come back and let us cater to your every desire.”
The centerpiece of “Seduction” is “A Visit to the Yoshiwara” by Hishikawa Mononobu. The 58-foot painting, featuring 15 episodes, is a view of this famous red light district in 1680, from entrance gate to teahouses to lower level brothels to the ageya or house of assignation designated for the wealthy. Every detail of life in this pleasure quarter is included, with more than 400 figures depicting courtesans, maids, samurai, musicians and chefs. Visitors can use an iPad app to magnify the figures, which will be necessary if lighting has not changed after press viewing. Unfortunately at the time of press viewing the overhead lights created a glare on the display case, more accented because lighting otherwise has been kept low to preserve the rich colors of the paintings. Even with this detraction, the painting is a masterwork from the eminent artist of the Edo period and is not to be missed.
Also in the Hambrecht Gallery are items representing those depicted in the painting. These include bed covers, such as a client would give a courtesan to mark his special relationship with her, silk robes, elegant serving vessels, and luxurious items which would have decorated the most expensive brothels.
The Osher Gallery focuses on the life of the courtesan. More than 4,000 prostitutes worked in the Yoshiwara. Most of these were poorly-paid sex workers who had to meet daily quotas, deal with unwanted pregnancies, and often had venereal diseases. A few became high-ranked celebrities, skilled in music, calligraphy and fine arts, and available only for a high price to a selected few. The latter are the subject of most of the art featuring courtesans. These are not nudes; rather, seduction is heralded through setting (rain, orchards, reading a private letter) and subtle but suggestive embraces.
These paintings indicate the social class of the select courtesans through the fabrics they wore, colorful and unique designs rendered in luxurious silks. However, very few of these expensive robes survived. Nevertheless, the patterns themselves did survive. What was fashionable in Edo became fashionable elsewhere. The exhibit includes luxurious robes made for the wives of wealthy merchants and women of the samurai class, who wanted to be as much a part of the contemporary scene as do their counterparts today.
By far one of the most interesting part of the exhibit is the section on kabuki theater. Women were not allowed to act and thus a whole cross-dressing culture flourished in Edo. Here, it is worth the time to pause and watch the short film on roles in kabuki theater. The importance of disguise in seduction is emphasized in the various paintings.
Two particularly striking pieces are featured on the back wall of the Osher. Both depict demons. The larger one is Ibaraki Demon Retrieving His Arm, a scroll by Shibata Zeshin, and the smaller is The Old Woman Retrieving Her Arm, by Tsukioka Yoshitoshi, one of 36 woodblock prints of ghosts. According to the tale which the scroll depicts, a demon disguised itself as woman and attacked passersby at the Rashomon Gate. The warrior Watanabe no Tsuna sliced off the demon’s arm and gave it to his master Raiko. The demon disguised itself as Raiko’s aunt and asked to see the arm, turned back into a demon, seized the arm, and fled. Zeshin produced several versions of this scroll. Yoshitoshi likely used one of these as the inspiration for his woodblock.
“The Printer’s Eye” fills the Lee Gallery. San Francisco printer Edwin Grabhorn collected the prints and his widow Irma donated 136 to the Museum in 2005. Not everyone was able to visit the pleasure quarters of Edo, nor afford the luxurious paintings represented by the Weber Collection. But almost anyone could afford these mass-produced prints. Each one cost less than a bowl of noodles. Eager to feel themselves a part of popular culture, the common person snapped up these prints. Thus we have a visual lesson in how the cultural leanings of upper classes are transferred to those with lower economic means.
These prints are no less historically important, however. Cheap at the time, these prints are rare today, and those in this collection rarer still, representing the early work of Kaigetsudo Dohan and Okumura Masanobu, among others. These ukiyo-e, or pictures of the floating world, are being displayed for the first time in the U.S. The colors are uncommonly well-preserved but cannot stand extended exposure to light. The 56 prints on view now will be replaced with 32 other works on March 31. San Francisco printer Edwin Grabhorn collected the prints and his widow Irma donated 136 works to the Museum in 2005.
The first section is devoted to the origins of printmaking in Japan from monochromatic prints to hand coloring to multi-colored printing. This part includes a display of carving tools and other materials used in production. The second section contain prints of popular celebrities and other cultural phenomena. The final section is devoted to literary themes and high fashion.
Many programs accompany the exhibits. At 7 p.m., March 19, Tatsu Aoki will talk about his childhood in a geisha house. At 7 p.m., April 9, GenRyu Arts and Aoki will present a program of Taiko drumming, dance, music and film. Docent tours are offered daily at 10:30 and 2 p.m. Curator Allen will lead an in-gallery talk at 3:30 p.m., April 17. Call the museum or visit the website for other programs.
The catalogue for “The Printer’s Eye” is available for $35. The lush illustrations and definitive text from the Asian Art Museum are as usual of the highest quality. Catalogues from “Seduction” are delayed because of the dock strike but will cost $50 when available. Both can be purchased at the Museum store, which also has a large collection of cards and other items related to the exhibits. The cafe will feature Japanese dishes in conjunction.
If time permits, the Museum also features two other special exhibits of Japanese art. “Tradition on Fire: Contemporary Japanese Ceramics from the Paul and Kathy Bissinger Collection” can be viewed through April 6. This includes 22 works produced by 20 artists from the late 20th century to now. Also on view is “Tetsuya Ishada: Saving the World with a Brushstroke” which closes on Feb. 22. Ishada died in a train accident in 2005, leaving behind 180 paintings depicting modern life in surrealist style. Illustrated brochures for both are available at the information desk.