by Hillary Dawn Eichinger
On February 10, University of San Francisco’s Museum Studies Program and Asian Pacific Institute co-sponsored a lecture by Dr. Yuki Morishima, the Asian Art Museum’s new assistant curator of Japanese art. As I walked on campus to the evening lecture, which was titled titled Seduction: An Exploration of Japan’s “Floating World” Exhibition, I thought about why I am so intrigued by Japanese prints. Perhaps it’s the Japanese style of storytelling: capturing a series of complex moments in a simple frame. Perhaps it’s how Japanese prints celebrate a single seemingly mundane moment in time. Whether a print depicts a Geisha pinning up her hair, snow falling on a quiet street or a wave crashing in a harbor, each print tells a story while contemplating the moment.
I also wondered how Dr. Morishima selected prints to put on display for the lovely new exhibition Seduction: Japan’s Floating World which opened February 20th. It is on display through May 10th on the first floor of the Asian Art Museum. The prints featured in the exhibition show the intimate moments of a Geisha and life in the pleasure quarter of Edo Japan, today’s Tokyo. Nightly, the Quarter hosted the city’s samurai, nobles and merchants who sought amusement of all kinds such as music, dancing, drinking, fine foods, fireworks, gambling and of course sex. Geisha paraded down the street early in the day exhibiting the latest kimono fashion and hairstyles hoping to attract the attention of a wealthy patron. According to the Museum, the concept of the “floating world” originated from the Buddhist term, Ukiyo meaning the suffering caused by desire. The term Ukiyo-e refers to the pictures that depict these desires.
A 58-foot long hand scroll chosen by Dr. Morishima and featured in Seduction displays a rare view of these activities. The show also features prints of actors playing famous characters, geisha entertaining customers and samurai in disguise. At the time, prints of the “Floating World” were sold cheaply and in large quantities to tourists advertising the possibilities the quarter had to offer. The district was tightly regulated with a surrounding moat and guarded gate by the Bakufu government giving the quarter the added allure of something exclusive and forbidden. Prints at that time also added to that image inspiring the imaginations of their customers. Today prints advertising the quarter are expensive and rare but the fantasy of the “Floating World” remains in their rich imagery and display of a place now lost to us.
After the lecture, I had the opportunity to have dinner with Dr. Morishima and Professor Paula Birnbaum. Dr. Morishima, who was previously a curator at Boston Museum of Fine Arts, told me that one of her goals is to teach and spread enthusiasm for Asian art. American’s interest in Japanese art has waxed and waned with changing trends and styles. But nonetheless passion about Japanese prints has stayed strong since Japan opened its borders to trade in the late 1850s. Artists and collectors in Europe and America enthusiastically gathered prints to be studied and displayed influencing artistic style in this time period. Art collectors visited Japan and Paris to build collections of Japanese prints to put on display in galleries and in their homes. Edwin Grabhorn was one of these collectors. In the 1920s-30s he treasured the more rare prints by less famous artists. Part of his collection is on display in the show Seduction. Talking with Ms. Morishima about her museum career conveyed her own love for Asian art but a struggle to cultivate that in others. As an Asian art enthusiast myself I can understand that passing on this interest is sometimes difficult.
But hopefully shows like Seduction: Japan’s Floating World with its captivating combination of storytelling and artful display will inspire a curiosity and appreciation of an extraordinary art form.