More than 200 artworks are now on exhibit at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco (February 20-May 10, 2015), an exploration of Japanese art and the world of desire (“ukiyo-e”—floating world). Elaborate scrolls, woodblock prints, sculptures, and kimonos are vivid examples of the transient and evanescent world of the senses, particularly the highly rarified courtesan culture for the extremely wealthy samurai and aristocratic classes.
As the Buddha famously observed, a lifespan is like writing in water, a moment of illusion and sensory experience soon disappearing. The Yoshiwara district in Edo (1615-1868), now Tokyo, epitomized a uniquely Japanese subculture of entertainment (theatrical and musical performances) centered on sexual affairs. Special foods and sake were also reserved for those patrons affluent enough to partake.
Into the world of unrestrained indulgence, ukiyo-e artists created paintings, woodblock prints, and sculpture idealizing the beauty of famous courtesans in their private quarters. One of the collection’s centerpieces, “A Visit to the Yoshiwara”, by Hishikawa Moronobu (whose wife was a former courtesan)—is a panoramic guide, a fifty-eight-foot-long handscroll taking the viewer on a journey inside the secret life of the courtesan, the tea houses and restaurants reserved only for the exclusive minority of Yoshiwara patrons.
The seductive portrayals of the Yoshiwara lifestyle are intended to both fascinate and entice the viewer who can only experience vicariously what that world must have been . These handblock prints were produced in multiple editions so cost was extremely low, the price of a bowl of noodles. Ordinary residents could enjoy the luxurious pleasure district in much the same way we are entertained by television and movies. A video of the technical difficulties of woodblock printmaking help the viewer appreciate the technical mastery of this art form by those artists on display.
The subtext for the contemporary observer has to include the darker side of these two exhibits: profiteering from sexual services. Yet there is an intriguing dichotomy: women poets have their delicate images displayed prominently in some prints, often evoking the tentative or ephemeral nature of life itself. Very Buddhist indeed.
Both “Seduction” and “The Printer’s Eye” unlock secrets of complex images, of sexuality and impermanent, with wit, charm, and a breathtaking beauty inherent in the finest detail of a rich life few could partake in. This is a world not to be missed!