Smiling between the lines of ukiyo-e

by C.B. Liddell

Special To The Japan Times

Some art collectors enjoy the eclectic, picking up art pieces opportunistically — even randomly — usually when they find something at the right price. Others have more streamlined tastes and focus on a theme or genre, building up more consistent collections.

The result of both types can either be good or bad, but there is definitely something a little classier about collections that have a unified feel — something more like a symphony than a playful cacophony. The collection of ukiyo-e or floating world art on display at The Ueno Royal Museum is a case in point, having a harmonious focus on mid-sized bijinga, that is, paintings of beautiful ladies.

Titled “Seductive Smiles: Masterpieces of ukiyo-e Paintings from the Weston Collection,” it presents 129 works from a comparatively recent art collection, that of Roger L. Weston, a rich art lover from Chicago, who has been building up his collection since the 1980s.

The term “ukiyo-e” is often misunderstood, being taken to mean “woodblock prints.” But it more properly refers to depictions of everyday life in early modern and modern Japan (18th-19th centuries). In addition to print works, it can include brush works, like most of these here. These are referred to as nikuhitsu ukiyo-e.

Rather than referring to the medium, ukiyo-e has a particular cultural resonance that can be likened to the Persian poetry of Omar Khayyam or the old English adage “Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die.” It invokes the transitory nature of life, while emphasizing the need to gather our rosebuds while we may. For the Edo Period (1603-1868 )man-about-town — the main client of these artists — that meant visiting the theaters, brothel quarters and anywhere an elegant female form could be admired.

The supposedly transitory nature of this world is effectively signalled at the start of the show by “Folding Screens of Scenes in and Around Kyoto and Nara” (c. 1624-47). The scenes — temples, homes, hills and palaces — are wrapped, as if in cotton wool, by golden clouds, creating an impression of the world dissolving.

In an essay in the exhibition catalog, art historian and critic Seiji Nagata emphasizes the connection between Buddhist ideas of temporality with the pleasure-loving lifestyles depicted in the paintings on show.

” ‘Ukiyo,’ now written with the characters for ‘floating world,’ had long been written with characters meaning ‘the world of trouble and sorrow,’ ” he writes. “At the start of the early modern period … it became common to replace the character for ‘trouble and sorrow’ with the character for ‘floating.’ The primary meaning of ‘ukiyo’ shifted to love between men and women, or lust.”

This switch in emphasis can be read in various ways, an obvious one being that the long, peaceful Edo Period inclined people to a more shallow and hedonistic view of life, something that ultimately fed into Japan’s modernization. As the novelist Yukio Mishima said, “A nation must ravage itself before foreigners can ravage it.”

Throughout the Edo Period, there were constant concerns about the deleterious effect on morals of ukiyo-e, with censorship and occasional bans clashing — and often spurring — artistic creativity. The images at this exhibition, however, seem anything but decadent and depraved. Although many of them are depictions of courtesans, there is something rarefied, pure and even spiritual about them. Perhaps this impression would be challenged if one were to visit the shunga (erotic art) exhibition currently running at the Eisei Bunko Museum in Bunkyo Ward.

Weston’s taste is for rather chaste-looking female figures, in which the main artistic interest is in the clothing. Accordingly, there are several excellent examples of courtesans by the Kaigetsudo School, including the hanging scroll paintings “Standing Courtesan Wearing a Kimono with Pattern of Clematis Florida” (c. 1704-16) by Kaigetsudo Doshu and “Standing Courtesan Wearing a Checkered Kimono” (c.1704-16) by Kaigetsudo Dohan.

Both these works have beautiful, thick flowing lines that serve to frame and energize the kimono’s rich patterned texture, which must have been painted with great delicacy.

Looking at these works and others, such as Katsukawa Shunso’s charming “Woman Pondering What to Write” (c. 1789-92), may have you wondering about the exhibition’s title, “Seductive Smiles.” Compared to the liveliness of their attire, the faces of the subjects often seem expressionless; the typical poker face.

It is this inscrutable quality that pushes our eye around the picture to look for clues about moods and machinations. In “Woman Pondering What to Write” her kimono billows out in various directions, like competing mental narratives as one hand holds her chin and brush, while the other tightens on the piece of paper, wrinkling it.

This sets up a gentle psychological tension that spurs us to speculate about whom she is writing to and why she can’t quite decide what to say. Some affair of the heart is no doubt involved.

This exhibition includes numerous pleasing yet subtle encounters like this, making it a truly enjoyable show while confirming the good taste of the collector.

“Seductive Smiles: Masterpieces of ukiyo-e Paintings from the Weston Collection” at The Ueno Royal Museum” runs until Jan. 17; 10 a.m.-5 p.m. ¥1,500. Closed Mon. and Jan. 11.

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