December 01, 2008

Sebastian Izzard LLC Asian Art in association with Mitsuru Tajima of London Gallery, Tokyo, presented Early Images of the Floating World: Japanese Paintings, Prints, and Illustrated Books, 1660-1720 between March 3rd and April 5th, 2008.

This important exhibition, drawn largely from a collection formed in the early part of the twentieth century, explored the origins of ukiyo-e, or pictures of the Floating World, in the pleasure quarter of Edo, the modern Tokyo, in the second half of the seventeenth century. It featured thirty-seven works, many of them rare and some of them unique. Included, for instance, were nine guidebooks to the Yoshiwara, relocated after the great fire of Meireki in 1657 to the northeast sector of the city. These guides gave street plans, information about the courtesans available, and advice on the etiquette governing the pursuit of "the path of love" in the quarter. Such books represent a treasure house of information regarding fashion, manners, and customs of the period. As is the way with ephemera, however, few examples have survived.

Astute entrepreneurs involved in issuing the guides were part of the commercialization of publishing which occurred in Japan in the mid-seventeenth century. Writers turned professional; artists were recruited from the junior levels of the traditional schools; styles were updated; technical advances in printing encouraged better reproductions; and the picture book, or ehon, was born. All of these developments reflected a new, optimistic, and flamboyant hedonism. As Asai Ryoi wrote in his preface to Tales of the Floating World (Ukiyo Monogatari) of 1666: "So cross each bridge as you come to it; gaze at the moon, the snow, the cherry blossoms, and the bright autumn leaves; recite poems; drink sake; and make merry. Not even poverty will be a bother. Floating along with an unsinkable disposition, like a gourd bobbing along with the current-this is what we call the floating world" (quoted from Shirane Haruo, Early Modern Japanese Literature [New York: Columbia University Press, 2002], p. 30).

Given such origins, it is not surprising that erotica played a major part in the success of ukiyo-e. Hishikawa Moronobu (d. 1694), self-described as "handy with a brush," is generally seen as the father of ukiyo-e. The world he portrayed was robust and fun-loving, and his artistry was such that he established the first school devoted to the genre. Two of Moronobu's prints and five of the books he illustrated (occasionally supplying their texts as well) were in the exhibition. A number of talented students and followers, including Sugimura Jihei (active 1681-97), was variously represented in the exhibit by illustrated books, hanging scrolls, and complete or almost complete sets of shunga. A Kyoto-based rival of Moronobu was Yoshida Hanbei (d. ca. 1693), who illustrated Ihara Saikaku's Great Mirror of Male Love (Nanshoku Okagami) of 1687. The luxury presentation of this book in ten volumes, one of only two examples known, was in the exhibition.

The generation that succeeded Moronobu and his circle were also featured, with rare impressions of posterlike prints of courtesans by Kaigetsudo Doshin (active 1715-20), Torii Kiyomasu I (active ca. 1700-1722), and Okumura Masanobu (1686-1754).These are among the most desirable of Japanese prints and seldom appear on the market. The exhibition concluded with a handscroll depicting street entertainers by Miyagawa Choshun (1683-1753), an artist who regarded himself as heir to Moronobu and whose own artistic descendants include such luminaries as Katsukawa Shunsho (1726-93) and Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849). An illustrated catalogue is available.

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