By Andrew Jack
12 February 2002 - Late
seventeenth century life was hardly easy for most of the Japanese; but
for a minority who could enjoy - or at least dream of - the "floating
world", it was extraordinarily decadent.
potentially, and certainly sexually, within the Yoshiwara pleasure
quarter, rebuilt outside the city of Edo (modern day Tokyo) after the
great fire of 1657. But it came at a price, both financially and in
terms of the very different but restrictive social mores of the
concubines, their shaved heads concealed beneath purple scarves,
operated alongside their female counterparts; and art, music and dance
co-existed alongside more corporal activities.
Theatre Signboard Depicting Scenes from the Play 'Nishikigi Sakae
Komachi ', attributed to the Torri School, 1758
Museum of Fine
Arts, Boston, William Sturgis Bigelow Collection
suitably-named Bridge of Hestitation through which clients arrived was
a place to leave behind swords, inhibitions, and family fortunes, with
elaborate entertainment required before potential clients could move
onto other things with their chosen concubines.
This exhibition, assembled from
the collections of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, is suitably
under-stated, Japanese-style, with just three rooms in the Sackler Wing
of the Royal Academy in London. But the quality makes up for the
relatively minimal quantity.
Lady Ejima, an important woman at the shogun’s court, and the
artist Kaigetsudo Ando paid the price with exile in the early
eighteenth century, after she was caught having an affair with an
actor in the kabuki theatre.
The museum offers
regular free guided tours, which do much to add to an appreciation of
the works on display: ranging from fascinating rare guidebooks to the
zone (requiring frequent up-dating); to how-to manuals; and block prints
allowing for rapid reproduction of a variety of scenes widely collected
by souvenir-hunting visitors of the period.
Courtesan as Fei Zhangfang (Hi Chobo), by Okumura Masanobu c. 1706-08
of Fine Arts, Boston, William Sturgis Bigelow Collection
Modern visitors can
understand the concept of parallel perspective, distinct from the
European equivalent only just beginning to reach Japan during the
period; and be drawn to little historical snippets including the
compulsory water vessel on the roof of the wooden buildings, as a
precaution against future fires; the practice of samurai to wear two
A little more of such snippets contained in the signage
would have been useful. But there is plenty to justify the visit, even
without a guide.
The Dawn of the Floating World
Academy of Arts
Until 17 February 2002
Based in Moscow, Andrew Jack writes on culture
and politics in Europe. He is the author of
Exception and a member of the editorial board of