Thursday, May 1, 2008
Images from the Floating World
Living only for the moment, turning our full attention to the pleasures of the moon, the snow, the cherry blossoms and the maple leaves; singing songs, drinking wine, diverting ourselves in just floating, floating: caring not a whit for the pauperism staring us in the face, refusing to be disheartened, like a gourd floating along with the river current: this is what we call the floating world . . .
—Tales of the Floating World (Ukiyo Monogatari),
approx. 1661, by Asai Ryoi
Today, I met for the first time one of the local (Food) bloggers whose blog is an absolute delight:
It turned out that she’s a Navy Junior just like me and that there were so many parallels in our lives that we joked that we might have been twins, separated at birth. We had decided to meet in front of the Asian early in order to escape the crowds, which was a smart idea. We scooted in, just ahead of bus loads of kids and tourists but the two rooms devoted to the paintings of the Floating World were fairly empty and we could enjoy the magnificent art in relative peace.
There were two pieces that stood out and both were by Hokosai. Both pieces had images that owned the rectangular space and had a presence within that space, instead of “just” floating upon the white background. I loved the crowded screens of Togawara Street life, the half-naked lower class figures cavorting around in a dance or carrying a litter but when you stood at one end of the room and looked over all the pieces, these two really stood out for their graphic line and strength.
The second room had more of the same plus a whole line up of very sexually explicit prints. The door had a big sign warning about the content so I was very curious. The prints were what I’ve seen before – huge male genitals, people engaged in sexual congress and some showing a completely causal attitude toward intercourse, including courtesans who were drinking tea or smoking a pipe while engaged in the business of the moment. I found them funny and was rather sorry that some of the older teenagers that we saw being herded through the museum weren’t allowed to see how another culture treated sexual imagery – in a much more casual and matter-of-fact way.
We were both captivated by a video showing in the lobby. Narrated by David Attenborough (?), it was about the restoration of a 17th century paper screen, which had probably been used in a brothel to advertise the charms of its women. What was equally fascinating were the comments about the real life of these women. Sold by their families at a very young age, the beautiful images in this exhibit concealed the harsh reality of the girls' actual experience, portraying the illusion of an affluent and glamorous life. In reality, the women were in debt to the brothel owners, imprisoned, mistreated and thrown out to starve when they were no longer young and beautiful.
It was customary for women imprisoned in the brothels to be allowed to leave their "prisons" only once a year to see the sakura cherry blossoms.
No matter how gorgeous the gowns or how glamorous the facade; beneath it was a world of debt, obligation, poverty and oppression. The life of a courtesan was brief and her end was almost always tragic. But - like many eras that were harsh and cruel, artists created amazing art, graphic designs that are still fresh and strong today. I can imagine what it must have been for Monet or Van Gogh or Toulouse-Lautrec to see these prints for the first time. They were a revelation that created an artistic revolution.
(Images from the Asian Museum Web Site)