Scholten Japanese Art is pleased to participate in Asia Week 2016 with Ukiyo-e Tales: Stories from the Floating World, an exhibition focused on classic Japanese woodblock prints.
This exhibition will take us back to the golden age of ukiyo-e and will feature works by some of the most important artists of the late 18th and up to the mid-19th century. We will focus predominately on images of beauties and the layers of meaning and stories that are conveyed via subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) clues found in the compositions. The exhibition will begin with works by Suzuki Harunobu (ca. 1724-70), who is largely credited with bringing together all of the elements that launched the production of nishiki -e (lit. brocade pictures), the full-color prints that we recognize today as ukiyo-e or images of the floating world. The term ukiyo (lit. 'floating world') references an older Buddhist concept regarding the impermanence of life, but during the prosperity of the Edo period in Japan the term began to be used to encompass and embolden everyday indulgences because of that impermanence. It was Harunobu's designs, primarily celebrating youth and beauty, that are believed to have first launched the production of full-color woodblock printing in Japan around 1765.
One of the finest Harunobu prints included in this exhibition, Fashionable Snow, Moon, and Flowers: Snow, ca. 1768-69 depicts an elegant courtesan accompanied by her two kamuro (young girl attendants) and a male servant holding a large umbrella sheltering her from falling snow. The subject, a beautifully adorned courtesan parading en route to an assignation, and her placement within the lyrical setting of an evening snowfall, are hallmarks that define the genre of ukiyo-e. There are relatively few Harunobu prints extant, and due to their scarcity and the fragile nature of the vegetable pigments used at that time it is unusual to find a work in such good condition. Hence there are only two or three other authentic impressions of this particular design which have been recorded in public collections.
A print by a contemporary of Harunobu, Ippitsusai Buncho (fl. ca. 1755-90), titled Eight Views of Inky Water: Night Rain at Hashiba, ca. 1768-75, depicts the world from the perspective of a courtesan, without the pageantry of her parade through the pleasure quarters. Stepping out on to the verandah overlooking the Sumida River, she seems lost in thought as she adjusts the comb in her hair and looks down towards the small ferry boats navigating the dark ('inky') waters during a rainstorm while the passengers try vainly to protect themselves from the downpour. Streaks of rain partially obscure the view across the river where we see a figure carrying a lantern approaching a teahouse near the shore at Mukojima. While it was not uncommon to use accepted themes such as landscapes or literary subjects as a way to circumvent restrictions on overt depictions of famous actors and beauties or decadent displays of wealth, most of the time the 'cover' subject was relegated to an inset cartouche and the figural subject was front and center. In this composition the figure and the landscape are given equal consideration in a way that is unusual for the period because the landscape in the background tells as much of the 'story' as the figure in the foreground.
Another important artist well-represented in the show is Kitagawa Utamaro (1753-1806), a leading painting and print artist in his time, who practically owned the market for images of beauties in the 1790s and early 1800s, until his untimely death in 1806 shortly after a traumatizing episode when he was made to wear manacles under house arrest in punishment for having the audacity to depict the shogunate in an irreverent manner. A triptych of 'Brine Carriers' at a seashore was produced in happier times and visually references a classical literary subject, the sisters Matsukaze ('Wind in the Pines') and Murasame ('Autumn Rain'), from the famous 14th-century Noh Drama, Matsukaze . Although the original story is about love and loss, Utamaro only barely references the cautionary legend and instead focuses on the opportunity to sidestep restrictions and depict women in revealing clothing in an everyday setting. The two sisters have been replaced by a bevy of beauties wearing grass skirts far shorter than acceptable in normal public settings, and their kimono tops are literally falling open while they wade in the surf collecting the brine.
Another story told by Utamaro is of a lovers' quarrel. Eight Pledges at Lovers' Meetings: Maternal Love between Sankatsu and Hanshichi, ca. 1798-99, is from a series that plays on puns referencing the classic landscape theme of Omi hakkei ('Eight Famous Views of Omi'). This print uses the word ' bosetsu ' in the title, which can be translated as 'a mother's constant love,' but also works as a pun for 'evening snow,' a clever reference to Hira no bosetsu ('Evening Snow on Mount Hira'), one of the Omi hakkei subjects. But clever wordsmithing aside, what makes this print so remarkable is the tiny gesture of the woman, holding her index finger to her eye to wipe away a tear. For all of the dramas and tragedies in ukiyo-e, this small display of emotion stands out. While there are numerous visual shortcuts that artists employed to convey elements to a story, such as wisps of hair being out of place signaling excitement (good or bad), wiping away a tear is not at all common. Even more telling is the body language of her lover, who is looming over her shoulder and glaring at her. Their story is from a kabuki play (based on a true incident), in which the lovers resolve to give up their daughter and commit double suicide. Thus the 'maternal love' in the title suggests Sankatsu's heartache over leaving her child, and it would seem Hanshichi is impatient with her hesitation. Utamaro, an artist known for his depictions of beautiful women of all ranks as well as erotic art, seems to convey his disapproval of their decision. Rather than feeding into the high drama in a way that romanticizes their story, Hanshichi especially is portrayed in an unflattering light.
There are several prints in the exhibition that show how young women, both in and out of the pleasure quarters, pass their time. Fashionable Five Festivals: Amusements of the Girls in the Seventh Month by Utagawa Toyokuni (1769-1825) from ca. 1796 shows a young girl struggling with writing her poetic wish for the Tanabata Festival. She sits at a writing table, brush in hand, with all the accoutrements needed, but the blank paper looms before her. On the floor are completed poems on decorative paper, rejected or not, is unclear. But a companion at her side holds open a copy of the poetry anthology, Ehon hyakunin shu (Picture Book of One Hundred Poets), ready to provide inspiration to the young poetess.
The private life of a courtesan inside the pleasure quarters is depicted by Kikugawa Eizan's (1787-1867) Twelve Hours in the Pleasure Quarters: Daytime, Hour of the Snake, Courtesan Tomoshie of the Daimonji, ca. 1812. The so-called hour of the snake was a two-hour increment that began around 10 in the morning. Here we see the courtesan Tomoshie who is just getting up. She barely keeps her lightweight kimono closed, exposing an astounding length of leg and a deep décolletage. She seems to have just finished washing up and is using the sleeve of her robe to dry behind her ears. A young assistant holding a bowl of water is not entirely put together herself; her robe is disheveled at the collar and is opening at the legs revealing her upper thigh.
While some prints provide titles and puns to help us identify the story behind the composition, others provide only oblique clues and leave the rest to our imaginations. A stunningly well-preserved print by Keisai Eisen (1790-1848), has a curious title that seems to marry manufacturing with artistry: Modern Specialties and Dyed Fabrics: Sound of Insects at the Bank of the Sumida, ca. 1830. While the series title references a certain type of cloth dyed in a dappled pattern, the print title evokes the poetic sound of insects along the Sumida River in the summertime, and the composition itself seems to have little to do with either. The image is of a woman reading a letter by the light of a lantern which casts a dramatic beam across the room. The temperature must be uncomfortably warm because she wears her kimono very loosely, leaving the collar wide open at her chest with the sleeves pushed up, allowing it to open between her thighs to reveal a suggestive view of the red under-robe. She sits awkwardly with her knees folded at an angle, hunched over a long scroll of paper with an anguished look on her face with tell-tale wisps of hair falling forward signaling her distress. What is in the letter? Why is she so intense? Is it good or bad? We don't know, her story is open for our interpretation.
The exhibition will feature 48 woodblock prints including works by: Suzuki Harunobu (ca. 1724-70), Katsukawa Shunsho (1726-1792), Kitao Shigemasa (1739-1820), Katsukawa Shunko (1743-1812), Kitagawa Utamaro (1753-1806), Ippitsusai Buncho (fl. ca. 1755-90), Hosoda Eishi (1756-1829), Katsukawa Shunsen (1762- ca. 1830), Utagawa Toyokuni I (1769-1825), Utagawa Toyokuni II (1777-1835), Chokosai Eisho (fl. ca. 1780-1800), Keisai Eisen (1790-1848), Kikugawa Eizan (1787-1867), and collaborative works by Utagawa Kunisada (1786-1865) and Utagawa Hiroshige (1797-1858); and one painting by Hosoda Eishi.
Gallery viewing will begin on Thursday, March 10th, and continue through Friday, March 18th. An online exhibition will be posted in advance of the opening at www.scholten-japanese-art.com. Scholten Japanese Art, located at 145 West 58th Street, Suite 6D, is open Monday through Friday, and some Saturdays, 11am - 5pm, by appointment. To schedule an appointment please call (212) 585-0474.
For the duration of the first segment of the exhibition, March 10 – 18, the gallery will have general open hours (no appointment needed), 11 am to 5 pm; and thereafter by appointment through March 31st.