Tales of the Floating World

Hell Courtesan (Jikoju Dayu), latee 1840s, by Utagawa Kuniyoshi
“Hell Courtesan (Jikoju Dayu)”, late 1840s, by Utagawa Kuniyoshi

Last week I introduced a soon to close exhibition. Yesterday I went to see it:

Art vs. reality is at play in the “Seduction” exhibition at the Asian Museum (San Francisco) . The exhibition closes today but if you haven’t seen it, you can visit the museum’s Website to learn more. I’m also providing a link to the museum’s highlights of the artworks. For my own highlights, I would feature this little bunny that serves as an incense burner. It is from the Muromachi period of Japan (1392-1573) while most of the artwork presented is from the Edo period (1603-1869) of Japan. The bunny sculpture titled, “Incense Burner in the Shape of a Rabbit”, is my favorite piece in the show.little rabbit 2


Some historical notes:

  • Japan’s “floating world of pleasure” lasted over 300 years. It was the country’s red-light district and was situated in a walled, moated compound in Edo (present day Tokyo). It included prostitutes, female impersonators, brothels and the people who frequented them.
  • The Yoshiwara district of Edo (where the floating world was), had more than 4,000 prostitutes living and working there.
  • Ten year contracts, abuse, veneral disease, unwanted pregnancies — all were part of the territory  in this floating world of pleasure. So too were child attendants and teenaged apprentices.
  • Rank determined the amount of space and the location a woman was allotted in the brothel. Her length of service also factored into this ranking system.
  • This floating world was a forced system of prostitution from which the women rarely escaped.

The artwork in “Seductions” is a legacy of the Yoshiwara district. It includes scrolls, paintings, a painted fan, garments for men and women, and my little bunny rabbit. Neither the rabbit nor the garments are from the Edo period. Their presence is meant to illustrate what the people in the brothel would have worn — beautiful silk robes embroidered in luxuriously colored threads and gold with the most exquisite, intricate designs — and instruments (like incense burners) that they would have had.

The kimonos/robes were mostly from the 19th Century. Some that held my gaze were:

  • Summer Robe with Insect Cages and Autumn Plants 1750-1850
  • Summer Robe with Comorant Fishing Design, 1800-1850
  • Jacket with Cranes in Flight, 1800-1900

I was especially interested in the “paste resist” art technique that was used to create the two summer robes.

Cartoons Creeping In

cartoon eye & nose
Cartoon-like “All seeing eye and all smelling nose” — detail from Hell Courtesan wall scroll

You can see the beginning of cartoon-like drawings as early as Edo period Japan. There was, for example, a series of cartoon-like drawings about Ibaraki Demon, a man’s kimono with a cartoonish spider in a web and a cartoon eye and nose in the Hell Courtesan hanging scroll.

Ibarak Demon Retrieving Her Arm , c 1839, by Shibata Zeshin


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