Girls, girls, girls

Japanese ukiyo-e paintings and more at the MFA
By GREG COOK  |  November 6, 2007

JAPAN_TOP_inside
FISH EYES — SIXTH OF TEN BROTHERS Chinatsu Ban’s 2005 sculpture is irresistibly cute.

“Drama and Desire: Japanese Paintings from the Floating World 1690–1850” | Museum of Fine Arts, 465 Huntington Ave, Boston : Through December 16 | “Arts of Japan: The John C. Weber Collection” | MFA: Through January 13 | “Contemporary Outlook: Japan” | MFA: Through February 10
Around 1600, after a century of civil wars, Japan settled into an era of relative peace under the samurai warriors of Edo (present-day Tokyo). There and in Osaka and Kyoto, “pleasure quarters” developed. They offered legal brothels, theaters, and teahouses where, the catalogue for the Museum of Fine Arts’ “Drama and Desire” explains, “even the most reliable, serious-minded family man luxuriated shamelessly in all manner of musical entertainment and dance performed by geisha or in witty conversation and other intimacies with a courtesan” — i.e., a prostitute.

The contemporaneous prints that captured this “ukiyo,” or “floating world,” are well known, but the MFA’s “Drama and Desire: Japanese Paintings from the Floating World 1690–1850,” in the Torf Gallery, provides a rare sampling of 83 “ukiyo-e” (“pictures of the floating world”) paintings. All are drawn from the MFA’s collection of more than 700, which it proclaims the “finest” and “largest collection of its type in the world.” They were acquired in Japan in the 1870s and 1880s, when Boston and the MFA were visionary in their art collecting. Ah, the good old days.

The highlights include four large, rare, terrific kabuki-theater advertising signboards from the late 1700s that have been attributed to Torii Kiyomitsu or his school. Originally hung at an angle in the eaves of theaters to attract customers, they’re boldly painted and often combine several events from the plays into one scene. One from 1758, said to be the “oldest known extant” kabuki poster, advertises a tale of an unfairly maligned poet, with two trios of actors giving one another the hairy eye along a riverbank. Other posters feature a tea seller haunted by a ghost and a tale of 16th-century warlord seeking revenge on a rival who had assassinated their common overlord.

But mostly the exhibit is girls, girls, girls. Hishikawa Moronobu’s late-17th-century screens Scenes from the Nakamura Kabuki Theater and the Yoshiwara Pleasure Quarter provide a tour of Edo’s “pleasure quarters”: theatrical performances, bordellos, men gawking as prostitutes and their entourages promenade down streets. Throughout the exhibit, ravishingly elegant woman strum samisens, pick flowers, stroll along riverbanks, and just beautifully sit. A woman in a flaming red wig dances with peony branches in her hands in Katsukawa Shunsho’s hanging scroll Shakkyo, theLion Dance (1787-’88). In Utagawa Toyokuni’s large hanging scroll Geisha and Waitress (1804-’18), a woman smiles as she sits reading a love letter and curls her toes (what a lovely detail).

These paintings are often considerably larger than ukiyo-e prints, but the execution remains exquisitely refined. The colors are richer too, but the pictures are still driven by swooping calligraphic linework set against flat areas of pattern and color.

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