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A Visit to the Floating World

 

By Andrew Jack

LONDON, 12 February 2002 - Late seventeenth century life was hardly easy for most of the Japanese; but for a minority who could enjoy - or at least dream of - the "floating world", it was extraordinarily decadent.

Anything went, potentially, and certainly sexually, within the Yoshiwara pleasure quarter, rebuilt outside the city of Edo (modern day Tokyo) after the great fire of 1657. But it came at a price, both financially and in terms of the very different but restrictive social mores of the period.

Male concubines, their shaved heads concealed beneath purple scarves, operated alongside their female counterparts; and art, music and dance co-existed alongside more corporal activities.

Theatre Signboard Depicting Scenes from the Play 'Nishikigi Sakae Komachi ',
Theatre Signboard Depicting Scenes from the Play 'Nishikigi Sakae Komachi ', attributed to the Torri School, 1758
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, William Sturgis Bigelow Collection

The suitably-named Bridge of Hestitation through which clients arrived was a place to leave behind swords, inhibitions, and family fortunes, with elaborate entertainment required before potential clients could move onto other things with their chosen concubines.


Yet Lady Ejima, an important woman at the shogun’s court, and the artist Kaigetsudo Ando paid the price with exile in the early eighteenth century, after she was caught having an affair with an actor in the kabuki theatre.


This exhibition, assembled from the collections of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, is suitably under-stated, Japanese-style, with just three rooms in the Sackler Wing of the Royal Academy in London. But the quality makes up for the relatively minimal quantity.

A Courtesan as Fei Zhangfang (Hi Chobo), by Okumura Masanobu c. 1706-08
A Courtesan as Fei Zhangfang (Hi Chobo), by Okumura Masanobu c. 1706-08
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, William Sturgis Bigelow Collection

The museum offers regular free guided tours, which do much to add to an appreciation of the works on display: ranging from fascinating rare guidebooks to the zone (requiring frequent up-dating); to how-to manuals; and block prints allowing for rapid reproduction of a variety of scenes widely collected by souvenir-hunting visitors of the period.

Modern visitors can understand the concept of parallel perspective, distinct from the European equivalent only just beginning to reach Japan during the period; and be drawn to little historical snippets including the compulsory water vessel on the roof of the wooden buildings, as a precaution against future fires; the practice of samurai to wear two swords.

A little more of such snippets contained in the signage would have been useful. But there is plenty to justify the visit, even without a guide.


The Dawn of the Floating World (1650-1765)
Royal Academy of Arts
London
Until 17 February 2002




Based in Moscow, Andrew Jack writes on culture and politics in Europe. He is the author of The French Exception and a member of the editorial board of Culturekiosque.com.

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