“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: this is what we call the floating world…” – “ Tales of the Floating World (Ukiyo Monogatari), approx. 1661, by Asai Ryoi (a Buddhist monk and popular writer; Japanese, 1612-1671).
During the Edo period in Japan (1615-1868), there existed the “floating world.” A fantasy realm, where drama and desire unfolded in the urban pleasure quarters of Kabuki theaters and high-class brothels.
Born during the Edo period was a form of painting known as ukiyo-e (pronounced yoo-kee-oh-ey), which featured flamboyant actors, seductive courtesan, and beautiful geishas depicted in various scenes of eroticism and theatrical drama.
After more than 10 years of research, conservation and planning, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA) has brought the rare ukiyo-e paintings out of storage for limited viewing by the public in a showcase exhibit entitled “Drama and Desire: Japanese Paintings from the Floating World, 1690-1850.’
The exhibition first toured Japan in 2006 and was on view at the Kobe City Museum, Nagoya/Boston Museum of Fine Arts, and the Edo-Tokyo Museum. In 2007, the exhibition traveled to the Kimbell Art Museum, Royal Ontario Museum and the MFA, Boston.
The ukiyo-e paintings are now on display at the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco from February 15 through May 4, 2008, before they are returned to storage for safekeeping.
Featuring 80 artworks from the holdings of the MFA, Boston, the exhibition includes paintings from ukiyo-e masters Hokusai, Utamaro and Hiroshige. The showcase includes artwork in the form of screens, scrolls, banners and theater billboards. Most of the works on display have not been on view for more than 100 years.
“Japanese paintings are very fragile,” according to Anne Nishimura Morse, Curator of Japanese Art, MFA, Boston. “We want to protect them by making sure their exposure to light is very limited. This exhibit has been on tour for two years. And after San Francisco these paintings will go back into storage for quite a long time, so this represents the last opportunity to see these paintings.”
Originally acquired through the efforts of Boston physician William Sturgis Bigelow (1850-1926) during his residence in Japan in the 1880’s, the museum’s collection of ukiyo-e paintings numbers more than 700 artworks.
In 1996-1997, the curatorial staff of Japanese Art at the MFA, Boston collaborated with a team of Japanese scholars in cataloguing the institution’s holdings of ukiyo-e paintings for the first time. It was the first evaluation of the collection since the early 20th century tenure of Okakura Kakuzo, Curator of Japanese Art from 1904 to 1913.
Original Japanese ukiyo-e paintings were created on paper and silk using mineral pigments with a glue binder for paints and carbon from soot for inks. Because of this they are fragile and sensitive to light, and are not meant for permanent display. The various screens and hanging scrolls were shown only at specific times of the year. Hand scrolls were treated as books to be brought out and enjoyed then put away.
Among the many works of Katushika Hokusai (1760-1849) on display in Drama and Desire is the debut of his fiery-red, bulging-eyed, sword-wielding depiction of “The Demon Queller,” Zhong Kui, a legendary Chinese character, who was said to have been unfairly passed over during civil service exams and committed suicide but whose spirit vowed to protect against demons and disease. The famous image of Zhong Kui is traditionally displayed in every year in Japan on “Boy’s Day,” the fifth day of the fifth month.
The centerpiece of Drama and Desire features various depictions of the revered heroines of the floating world and their environs in a section entitled The Pleasure Quarters, Courtesans and Geisha. Ukiyo-e artists captured the beauty and style of these objects of desire in detail through sets of hanging scrolls.
“With its focus on the pleasure quarters and theatre districts of the floating world, Drama and Desire explores the intriguing cultural aspects of Edo-period Japan that have so fascinated the West. The exhibition provides something for everyone: exquisitely detailed, sumptuous paintings of geishas and courtesans in kimonos; rare artworks by some of the most famous artists of the period, including Hokusai, Hiroshige and Utamaro; plus examples of shunga (erotica) for those who enjoy their art a little more risque, said Asian Art Museum Director Emily Sano. “The fragile nature of the artworks allows for limited viewing – “ the exhibition is truly a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to view these superb paintings.”
Also debuting at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco is a new sculpture exhibition from Zhan Wang, one of China’s top contemporary artist.
On Gold Mountain: sculptures form the Sierra by Zhan Wang will be on display at the museum from February 15- May 25, 2008.
The exhibition incorporates Wang’s “scholar’s rocks” sculptures in which he creates replicas of weather – “worn boulders traditionally used in China for contemplation and reflection; and his “cityscapes” sculptures, in which he creates topographical models of urban landscapes using mirrored utensils, steel pots and pans.
The rocks used in Wang’s sculptures were all mined from the Sierra Nevada foothills before being transported to the artist’s studio in Beijing.
According to Curator Jeff Kelley, the Asian Art Museum’s consulting curator of contemporary art, the rocks allude to the gold rush, which brought Chinese immigrants to this country in the 19th century. As the portal city for the immigrants, San Francisco was named the “Gold Mountain.”
“Placed in a traditional courtyard, rockery satisfied people’s desire to return to nature by offering them stone fragments from nature,” Wang explains. “But huge changes in the world have made this traditional ideal increasingly out of date. I have thus used stainless steel to duplicate and transform natural rockery into manufactured forms. The material’s glittering surface, ostentatious glamour and illusory appearance make it an ideal medium to convey new dreams.”
In 1995, Wang began making his stainless steel copies of Chinese scholars’ rocks (jiashanshi), the graceful, craggy boulders found in several provinces around China that traditionally have served as subjects of contemplation. Zhan’s versions in stainless steel refer to the tensions between landscape and industrialization, tradition and modernity.
Zhan’s rocks range from palm-size to boulders. He pounds, bends, heats, and molds sections of stainless steel plate across the topography of each rock. In essence, he is wrapping the rocks in a modern industrial skin to create a mold of the real rock.
After the steel is shaped and peeled away in sections, it is welded together as a single hollow unit, and polished. The result is a mirrored surface that seems to disembody and liquefy the steel structures, creating a sense that they are luminous floating masses. Thus they are also known as “floating rocks.”
Wang has also created his urban cityscape sculptures for London, Beijing, Chicago, and Buffalo. He uses rocks, mirrored silverware, stainless steel pots and pans to create his cityscapes, which are have a reflective, illusory and ultimately borderless landscape.
Notes: This year, the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco will be celebrating its fifth anniversary at its new Civic Center location. Among the highlights will be the Power and Glory: Court Arts of China’s Ming Dynasty exhibition from June 27 to September 21, 2008.
For more information please visit the website at: www.asianart.org