“Drama and Desire: Japanese Painting from the Floating World 1690-1850”

Pub date March 5, 2008
WriterMatt Sussman
SectionArts & CultureSectionVisual Art

REVIEW Drawn almost entirely drawn from the near-mint-condition holdings of Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, "Drama and Desire: Japanese Painting from the Floating World 1690–1850" is an exhilarating survey of early modern Japan and the sumptuous — and often costly — pleasures that were available to the upper echelon of its newly solidified class system.

One can follow the contextual trail laid down by the show and take in the long view of history inscribed with brush and natural pigments: the relocation of Japan’s capital to Edo (now Tokyo); the establishment of Yoshiwara, the city’s licensed pleasure quarters; the development of Kabuki and sumo; and most important, the rise of an urban, largely male merchant class who kept this floating world afloat. It is a panorama laid out in the pair of large folding screens of Hishikawa Moronobu (1681–84), both studies in hierarchical contrast between the more lowly teahouses and higher-class brothels and their characters: a starring courtesan, enfolded in thickly brocaded kimonos as battle-ready as any armored samurai, surrounded by her retinue of clients, servants, and geisha, and male customers shamefully covering their faces with their fans so they’re not recognized by rivals. The real drama of these ukiyo-e is in their details, such as in the way Katsushika Hokusai dapples the collar of young woman’s inner kimono with mica to evoke a luminescent cherry-blossom pattern in Woman Looking at Herself in a Mirror (1805). Seen from behind, her face framed by a small oval mirror, this gazing beauty is only partially regarding herself. She also seems to be taking stock of the viewer while taking pleasure in being looked at. But surely the pleasure is all ours. (Matt Sussman)

DRAMA AND DESIRE: JAPANESE PAINTINGS FROM THE FLOATING WORLD 1690–1850 Through May 4. Tues.–Sun., 10 a.m.–5 p.m. (Thurs. until 9 p.m.). $10 ($5 Thurs. after 5 p.m.), $7 students, $6 for 12 to 17, free for 11 and under. Asian Art Museum, 200 Larkin, SF. (415) 581-3500