Life of Cats: Selections from the Hiraki Ukiyo-e Collection


Life of the CatsCalling all cat-lovers! Recently we had the delightful experience of seeing the “Life of Cats” exhibit at the New York branch of the Japan Society. It’s a beautiful show, greeting us with a custom-made wooden gateway as a portal into the world of cats and the almost irrational, inordinate affection some of us bestow on these sentient beings. The “beckoning cat for good luck” (maneki neko) with its raised right paw is suggested by this amazing gate. The legend is that Japanese merchants carrying Buddhist sutras across the seas from China also brought a few cats who purred their way into the hearts of Japanese and their culture. Ninety prints on loan from the Hiraki Ukiyo-e Foundation together with other works borrowed from U.S. collections total 120 artworks of Japan’s love affair with our feline furry friends. “Hello Kitty” is just a recent reincarnation.

The ukiyo-e and paintings range from realistic — a beautiful white kitty gazing out a window at rice paddies and Mr. Fuji (created by Utagawa Hiroshige in 1857) — to the fantastic — an entire village of cats jumping rope, playing taiko drums, and walking on stilts. The fine-gauge carving of the fur almost looks fuzzy.

The strangeness and aloof nature of cats are also accentuated in this artform: elegant, but also Buddhist in equanimity and enlightenment, sometimes even depicted as humans with cat faces for a humorous, rather clown-like interpretation.20150313CATS-slide-D1M4-jumbo

There are also cats who bring bad karma to those who are not solicitous of the correct behavior towards others. The majority of times, however, cats are believed to detect evil spirits or be mischievous like the fox.

It’s a beautiful show, greeting us with a custom-made wooden gateway as a portal into the world of cats and the almost irrational, inordinate affection some of us bestow on these sentient beings. If you have a chance, go visit “The Life of Cats” at the Japan Society in New York before June 7, or visit the website for a sampling of the artwork.IMG_3109



“Seduction” and “The Printer’s Eye”

Katsukawa Shunshoi
Katsukawa Shunshoi

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.Fragment of Hishikawa Moronobu

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.

Katsushika Hokuun
Katsushika Hokuun

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!