Women of the Floating World
From the 1660s on, each of the three major urban centers of Japan had its own thriving pleasure quarter. Kyoto had its Shimabara, Edo (Tokyo) its Yoshiwara, and Osaka its Shinmachi. This was a time of great economic and social change and ironies. With the establishment of the Tokugawa shogunate and the end of civil warfare, the merchant class grew wealthy while the military class slowly grew impoverished. The merchant class, and those commoners with money, gained power that accompanies wealth despite the Confucian ethic supported by the Tokugawa government that placed the merchant class last on the social hierarchy.
The pleasure quarters, enclosed centers for theaters, and gay teahouses, many of which offered entertainment including prostitution, were the result of the government's attempts to contain and thus control social vices and immorality. Yet what developed was a thriving artistic and intellectual society complete with intricate rules, fashions and maneuverings which often left the unaccustomed samurai feeling clumsy and foolish. While the term ukiyo has Buddhist undertones in its reference to the transience of life and the world of pain that man is born into, it soon took on more hedonistic connotations of "living only for the moment, turning our full attention to the pleasures of the moon, the snow, the cherry blossoms and the maple leaves; singing songs, drinking wine, diverting ourselves in just floating, floating; caring not a whit for the pauperism staring us in the face, refusing to be disheartened, like a gourd floating along with the river current." (Trans. from Ukiyo monogatari (Tales of the Floating World), ca. 1661, by Richard Lane, Images of the Floating World, NY: Dorset Press, 1978, p. 11)
For men of the merchant or plebeian class, great fortunes could be made or lost and romantic adventures awaited in the pleasure quarters. For women, the world of the pleasure quarters was more often than not a place of tragic undertones despite the surface gaiety and luxury. While the famous courtesans of the day were revered for their beauty, splendid clothing, and accomplishments in the refined arts, there were many young attendants, deputies to the courtesans, and servants, often bought at a young age, who were not so fortunate and had no hope of buying their freedom.
This exhibition offers a wide sampling of the different portrayals of the celebrated women and courtesans of the pleasure quarters. This particular selection of prints allows us to see the stylistic development in the artists' treatment and the changes in popular ideas of beauty, and gives us an idea of the artists' endless search for innovative ways to present the "modern" woman. Compared to the earlier works of Nishikawa Sukenobu (1621-1750) or Torii Kiyomitsu (ca. 1735-1785), the
petite, nymph-like young girls of Suzuki Harunobu (ca. 1725-1770) are strikingly gentle and as ingenuous as the simple flowers and nature motifs that grace their settings. With the pictures of Kitagawa Utamaro (1753-1806) and Chobunsai Eishi (1756-1829), the women grow to an elegant stature. Their faces in particular are brought closer to the viewer and convey a panopoly of subtle emotions. Finally, with prints by Utagawa Kunisada or Ikeda Eisen, the image of the modern woman reaches new heights--new extremes--in clothing, setting, activity and coloring to match the tempo of the times.