The University of Arizona Museum of Art and Archive of Visual Arts

Pictures of the Floating World: Life in 19th Century Japan

Yoshitaki Utagawa  Imayo Genji gojushi jo no uchi, 1869

June 24 – October 6, 2010

Consisting of works from the UAMA permanent collection, this exhibition focuses on woodblock prints from the nineteenth century and explores the print-making process, everyday life in pre-modern Japan, and the cultural exchange that took place between Japan and the Western world.

The Japanese woodblock print dates back to the Nara period (646-794). However, it was in the Edo period (1603-1867) that the art form truly blossomed and the works became known collectively as ukiyo-e. While the printing tradition in Japan was tied closely to the Buddhist faith, artists found the medium ideal for depicting a modern Japan. Although the term ukiyo is a Buddhist term that can be roughly translated into “the floating world,” it is used tongue-in-cheek to allude to the nightlife activities in Edo (present day Tokyo). As such, a majority of the subject matter of the ukiyo-e artists is both expressive and relevant to the times.

These works can be divided into five categories: portraits of geisha and courtesans, theater prints, mythical and historical scenes, landscape, and shunga (pornographic images). This greatly contrasted with the earlier woodblock prints that primarily depicted Buddhist themes and were thought to be magical.

Portraits of geisha (female entertainers) and courtesans were the most popular subject matter of the ukiyo-e artists. Fashionable, beautiful, sensuous, and vibrant — geisha and courtesans were the ideal focus for many artists. Although the beauties of the Yoshiwara district were chosen as subject matter for their own sake, these prints had commercial value and served to function both as fashion plates (like magazine ads today showing the current trends in clothing) and as a much sought-after souvenir for men who visited the pleasure district.

Second only to images of geisha and courtesans in popularity were actor prints and Kabuki theater scenes. The woodblock art form lent itself naturally to the dramatic makeup, vivid colors, and exaggerated expressions used in Kabuki theater. These prints also had commercial value and were often commissioned to promote shows, serve as souvenirs for attendees, or to be collected by fans. Over time, these prints developed into caricatures of sorts and specific actors could be recognized in images.

Myths and historical prints, while receiving less attention than the Kabuki prints or portraits of beautiful courtesans, were nonetheless important. Due to the complexities of the narratives portrayed, these works were often quite detailed and incorporated both figure drawing and landscape in order to create as detailed a scene as possible. Some examples of subject matter were battle scenes, tales of star-crossed lovers committing shinju (double suicide), or long journeys.

Landscape prints captured the world of Edo-period Japan, if not in accuracy, than in spirit. Prints by the great landscape artists Hokusai and Hiroshige are among the finest examples of ukiyo-e prints and, in regards to both of these artists, offer great insight into how people of that time viewed the world around them.

The final subject of the ukiyo-e print makers was shunga, or “spring prints.” These were erotic in nature and depicted explicit amorous encounters. Many artists did not sign these works — and if they did their mark was usually embedded somewhere in the image itself. However, a majority of ukiyo-e artists created shunga at some point in their careers as high demand allowed them to garner an above-average price, and made them very profitable.

In 1853 when the Kanagawa Treaty opened Japan’s ports to international trade, the Western world got a glimpse of the beautiful and unique culture of Japan through its exports. Europe and America were for the first time exposed to the Japanese print, which was often used as wrapping for trade items. This uniquely Japanese art form was revolutionary to the art world. These prints were admired by, and inspired, Bonnard, Cassatt, Gauguin, Monet, Pissarro, Toulouse-Lautrec, van Gogh, Whistler, and many others; and were of monumental importance to the field of graphic design.

This exhibition was curated by Waverley Chmura, under the mentorship of Lauren Rabb, UAMA Curator of Art. Waverley is a museum volunteer who graduated from Arizona State University in December 2009 with a B.A. in Art History and a Certificate in Asian Studies with an emphasis on the Japanese language.

Read reviews of the exhibition