By DAVID LITTLEJOHN
April 3, 2008; Page B19
Beginning in 1996, Boston's Museum of Fine Arts invited scholars from Japan to assist its staff (led by Anne Nishimura Morse) in analyzing, evaluating and cataloging a major collection of sensuous, hedonistic and occasionally erotic Japanese paintings that had slept unseen for over a century. After almost 10 years' work, the participants concluded that the Boston museum owned the world's largest and best collection of ukiyo-e paintings from Edo (now known as Tokyo) -- paintings that paid tribute to the "floating world" of live-for-the-day pleasure, as opposed to the fixed, eternal Buddhist ideal of ascetic and unworldly selflessness.
Once the cataloging was done, the MFA sent 69 of its prized ukiyo-e paintings or groups of paintings on tour, first to three art museums in Japan (where they had never been publicly shown), then to three other museums in North America. San Francisco is the final stop. Because of their fragility, these works will probably be put to rest again for many years.
The traveling sample is made up primarily of paintings on silk or paper fixed to hanging silk scrolls, but there are also impressive sets of folding screens, hand scrolls and theater posters, all painted on paper. Most of Boston's ukiyo-e (you-KEY-oh-ay) paintings came from the collection of Dr. William Sturgis Bigelow, who acquired more than 700 during his stay in Japan in the 1880s. Prints in this style are quite common; paintings are rare.
Edo was founded in the early 17th century as a samurai counterpart to the imperial capital at Kyoto and the commercial center at Osaka. It rapidly outgrew the others both in population and power (there were more than a million residents by 1750), becoming the formal as well as the de facto capital of Japan in 1868.
During the reign of the Tokogawa shoguns, hundreds of thousands of Edokko townspeople lived in incredibly crowded conditions. For them, escapes to open country, walks along the river and under the trees, became an essential part of life. Partly because this garrison city had a heavily male population, its military rulers established an enclosed "pleasure zone" in the northeastern quarter of Yoshiwara where prostitution was licensed and legal. Around the brothels where some 2,500 prostitutes lived and the "houses of assignation" where they met their clients sprang up teahouses, restaurants, theaters and lower-class bordellos. Near the gates of the district were Edo's Kabuki theaters, offering vivid, day-long entertainments to hundreds of people of both sexes. It was to scenes of pleasure like these that captivated, captivating ukiyo-e artists directed their attention for 160 years.
Paintings in all three formats (hanging scrolls, handscrolls and screens) depict people on pleasure outings, often in different seasons. Small and large groups are shown strolling along riverside paths, visiting restaurants, admiring the cherry blossoms of spring and the maple leaves of autumn. Women gaze at a snow-covered garden or the moon, fish off a porch, smoke long red pipes. Men gamble and visit bath houses. Parties gather for a picnic, an herb-gathering expedition, a string trio, a pleasure cruise. Genteel ensembles enjoy the performances of colorfully costumed dancers.
Professional dancers and actors gave rise to a whole subgenre of ukiyo-e. Three hanging scrolls depict women performing identifiable dances, which set their elegant robes swirling in voluptuous curves, blown by the wind of the artists' imagination. A set of 12 gold-leafed screen panels and an early 18th-century handscroll both depict troupes of Kabuki performers parading, preparing and performing. Three large, bright posters of actors, some in violent motion, were broadly painted on paper to hang outside theaters. A long, wonderfully composed and expressive hanging scroll by Utagawa Toyokuni depicts the most famous Kabuki actor of his time in the seven roles he played during the Edo season of 1814-15.
A variant on the "pleasure outing" theme is made up of linear, bird's-eye vistas of the main street of Edo's officially sanctioned pleasure zone. There are three of these here -- two on long, unfolding screens of 1688 and the early 18th century; one on a flawless hanging scroll painted by Toyokuni in 1795. Although these vistas show all manner of Nighttown denizens and visitors, the stars in each case are the oiran, the highest-class prostitutes, who could earn their bosses the equivalent of thousands of dollars by entertaining a single client. They parade in extravagant costumes and needle-stuck coiffures, bending themselves into S- and Z-curves before the gaping gaze of mere males, surrounded by their own entourages. What they are doing is traveling from their brothel home to their meeting place with the wealthy partner of the night, along with attendant geishas, chaperones and servants. But all Edo regarded them as queens, as iconic images of female beauty. Men longed for them; women tried to imitate their style.
At least 30 of the hanging scrolls on tour from Boston are specifically "pictures of beauties" (bijinga): upscale pinups, the movie stars and fashion models of the Tokogawa Shogunate. Seventeen of them are identified by the Boston curators as "Edo courtesans," who had a higher standing in the culture than mere wives or geishas. Idealized images of them were regarded as the apex of ukiyo-e art. (These so-called courtesans have little in common with comfortably maintained mistresses like Madame du Pompadour or Verdi's Violetta Valéry. They were virtually the property of their brothel-masters, and were forbidden to leave the walled and moated precinct.)
Some elements of the implicit standards of female beauty may seem alien to Western eyes: long, flat elliptoid faces painted white, with tiny eyes and mouths; two-dimensional bodies swathed in loose, flowing kimonos; "unnatural" poses and attitudes, assumed by invisible bodies as pliable as wire. But the end results may still strike the eye as lovely, primarily because of the languid, elegant S- or C-shaped curves the women assume, and the extraordinary appeal of their costumes -- two or three layers of kimonos bound by a wide sash, or obi, each painted in a different, often brilliant color (flashes of red are everywhere) and a delicate pattern of orchids, willow, waves, webs, seaweed, cranes, chrysanthemums, or butterflies. These fine silk gowns are blown open and about in exotic, erotic Art Nouveau curves. Their hems puddle out on the floor like upside-down lilies. The increasingly complex coiffures are decorated with six, eight, 10 long hairpins made of wood, tortoise shell, bone or silver. The gowns, poses and hairdos of these willowy, unattainable, high-rent beauties take the place of the bodies we cannot see.
At least most of the time. The exhibition includes three 18th- and early 19th-century handscrolls, each containing a dozen elegantly composed and meticulously painted images of pale, pudgy men and women having sex, in a variety of attitudes and positions. Many famous ukiyo-e print-makers and painters contributed to this immensely popular genre, known as shunga or "spring pictures." Dr. Bigelow bought and donated more than a hundred such scrolls to the Boston museum.
But the three Japanese art museums that welcomed this collection (and the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth) either rejected or censored these three erotic works. San Francisco, like Boston and Toronto, lets it all hang out -- although with a "parental guidance" warning posted on the gallery door. Perhaps these museums' curators, like many citizens of early Edo, sensed an unbroken continuum between the pleasures of moon-viewing and the pleasures of sex.
Another reason for including the controversial handscrolls in the exhibition is to remind viewers why the Pleasure District was created in the first place; and of the ultimate destination of the promenades made by all these extravagantly garbed and coiffed "comfort women." Some of them had been sold by their parents as servants to brothel-keepers when they were 7 or 8 years old. After 10 years or so at the top of their trade, they were often bound to their masters for life by debts for their clothing and upkeep. One man's pleasure can be many women's pain.
Mr. Littlejohn writes about West Coast cultural events for the Journal.