Pleasures of the Floating World: Ukiyo-e at the Blanton

During the relatively peaceful, prosperous, but isolationist Edo period (1603-1868) in Japan, ukiyo-e flourished as a popular art form. Directly translated as “pictures of the floating world,” these images, most often realized in woodblock prints, conjure a world of dazzling theater, elegant women, colorful festivals, literary sophistication, and memorable vistas. In this ephemeral world, all the pleasures associated with urban life are indulged and celebrated.

The Blanton Museum of Art at The University of Texas Austin is set to present The Floating World: Masterpieces of Edo Japan on view Feb. 11, 2024 through June 30, 2024. 130 woodblock prints and several scrolls from the Worcester Art Museum (WAM)’s Bancroft Collection will be on display, marking the first time WAM has toured its famed collection of Japanese art.

“The Bancroft Collection is very large, with over 3000 objects,” explains Holly Borham, Associate Curator of Prints, Drawings, and European Art at the Blanton. “It’s a very rich treasure trove to pick from. John Chandler Bancroft was collecting woodblock prints within a few years or decades after these prints were made, so the quality is very high.” Bancroft, a Boston businessman, bequeathed 3700 Japanese woodblock prints to WAM in 1901. This collection, the earliest of its kind in the U.S., is still considered one of the finest in the nation.

For the Blanton, it’s a perfect fit. “From our point of view,” considers Borham, “we try to bring exhibitions here that fill in the gaps of what we don’t have in our collection. We really don’t have Japanese woodblock prints. We don’t collect Asian art in general. We always talk about bringing the world to Austin, so bringing this really beautiful and important art form to our local audiences is really exciting.”

Blanton’s presentation of The Floating World is divided into four major themes, demonstrating the scope and breadth of the diverse genre of ukiyo-e prints. The first is “Entertainments,” which encompasses everything from Kabuki theater to various festivals, as well as portraits of famous actors in their roles and in their private lives. “We have one sumo wrestler I’m really excited about,” exclaims Borham.

In Katsukawa Shunei’s Portrait of the Wrestler Tanikaze Kajinosuke, the famous sumo wrestler, the first to be awarded the title yokozuna (grand champion) in his lifetime, is depicted in a firm stance, the linework finely executed to suggest his large stature and rippling muscles.

While many of the prints show famous actors in their roles in specific plays, the fandom also demanded prints that revealed their idols’ private lives. “It’s like People magazine,” observes Borham, “paparazzi catching actors in their private moments. We follow these stars and we want to know more.” Utagawa Toyokuni I designed prints for eager Kabuki theater fans showing favorite actors smoking, playing music, drinking sake, or visiting a shrine. Individual actors can be identified by an upturned eyebrow, a family emblem or crest of his acting school, or a distinct accessory, such as the golden fan held by Sawamura Sojuro III on and off the stage. In Ichikawa Danjuro V and his Family, Torii Kiyonaga portrays one of the most beloved actors of his generation walking with his family to the Nakamura Theatre. The intimacy of the group is evident, the actor’s son being carried on the shoulders of his pupil.

Festivals held for the enjoyment of the broad public were popular subjects for ukiyo-e artists as well. On view are three artists’ impressions of the Ryōgoku Bridge and the annual Kawabiraki Festival that marks the Sumida River’s opening to recreational boating in the summer season. Artists Keisai Eisen, Utagawa Toyoharu, and Katsukawa Shunsen all chose to depict the variety of leisurely pastimes available to revelers here, from cooling off in covered pleasure boats to watching fireworks from the bridge.

Part two of the exhibition features “Poetic Pictures,” images with literary, historical, or mythological allusions that appealed to the literati. Especially notable are several outstanding examples of surimono, limited edition prints privately commissioned by various amateur poetry groups, often for special occasions like the New Year. These feature calligraphic inscriptions of poems by members of the poetry club along with the associated imagery.

In the charming print A Live Rooster and a Painted One, most likely commissioned for the Year of the Rooster in 1825, Totoya Hokkei’s rooster, confused by the painted rooster on the screen, engages in a standoff with his alter ego. Three poems above provide humorous commentary on the scene. Prints depicting Japanese and Chinese myths and legends abound, as well as one referencing a poem by the much admired Chinese poet Li Bai, known as Ri Haku in Japan. Katsushika Hokusai captures the poet at the moment of inspiration as he stands precariously on the precipice, held back in safety by two servant boys. He is in awe of the sheer vertical drop of Horsetail Falls at Lushan.

Some of the most recognizable images of ukiyo-e can be found in part three of the exhibition, “Landscapes and the Natural World.” The popularity of Hokusai’s Thirty-six Views of Mt. Fuji and Hiroshige’s One Hundred Famous Views of Edo and Fifty-three Stations of Tokaido inspired other artists to produce similar series such as Utagawa Kuniyoshi’s Famous Sights of the Eastern Capital and Keisai Eisen/Utagawa Hiroshige’s joint production of the Sixty-nine Stations of the Kisokaido, a direct follow-up to the original Fifty-three Stations.

“I think of these as a kind of Tripadvisor or travelogs,” muses Borham. In feudal Japan, the daimyos (feudal lords) were required to reside in the capital every other year as a show of loyalty to the shogunate. Roads were being built throughout the countryside to accommodate large processions traveling to and from Edo. “This is a way for people to collect images of places they’ve traveled to or to travel virtually through collecting these beautiful prints.”

One of the most striking prints in this section is Hokusai’s South Wind, Clear Sky, also known as Red Fuji (from Thirty-six Views), capturing the rosy glow of Mt. Fuji at dawn. The flat face of the mountain dominates the simple landscape, while the clouds are stacked vertically in pure abstraction. In contrast, Hiroshige’s Asakusa Rice Fields and Torinomachi Festival (from One Hundred Famous Views of Edo) is visually complex. A white cat looks out an upstairs window across the rice fields to a distant procession of people celebrating the Torinomachi Festival, with Mount Fuji beyond. There is more going on here. The viewer can deduce that the room is in fact in a brothel in the Yoshiwara pleasure quarters. The water bowl and hand towel on the window sill, the ornate hairpins laid out on a cloth bundle on the floor, the edge of a roll of sanitary papers, all hint at a recent rendezvous. The Torinomachi Festival was the busiest day of the year for the red-light district, a day on which every courtesan was required to take a customer or pay a fee to the brothel owner.

The last part of the exhibition is all about fashionable women and the pleasure quarters they inhabit. Bijin-ga, or “pictures of beautiful women,” appealed to an urban population fascinated by the perceived sophistication and refinement of courtesans and geishas. Artists such as Utagawa Kunisada, Keisai Eisen, and Katsukawa Shunsen all excelled in this genre, designing vibrant prints of beautiful women in elegant poses dressed in elaborate kimonos, modeling the latest fashion in clothing and accessories.

Bookending the exhibition chronologically are two prints that illustrate the evolution of ukiyo-e during the Edo period, highlighting technological innovations as well as marking domestic and geopolitical sea change. The development of polychrome or multi-block printing emerged in the mid-18th century, making possible designs of much finer detail as well as greater range and variety of colors. Then the invention of Prussian blue, a brilliant and colorfast new blue developed in a Berlin lab and imported into Japan by the Dutch, took the ukiyo-e world by storm in the 1820s.

The earliest work in the exhibition is from 1690. Sugimura Jihei’s Boys’ Festival is printed in black ink and hand colored with muted hues of tan, yellow, and green. It shows a family walking alongside the walls of a daimyo’s castle, where flags have been raised for a festival celebrating the boys in each family. “This is a festival that has existed for centuries and is still celebrated in Japan today,” says Borham. “It’s also a wonderful early print showing a local festival happening in the feudal system, then we move forward to the print of American ships arriving and changing everything.”

The latest work in the exhibition, Utagawa Yoshiiku’s Picture of a Great Ship from America (1861), depicts the “black ship” of Commodore Matthew Perry arriving in Edo Bay, forcing Japan to open its ports to foreign trade, and effectively marking the end of the Tokugawa shogunate and its policy of isolationism. The American flag can be seen flying off the stern of the ship. Flanking it are four other ships bearing the flags of France, Russia, England, and the Netherlands. The work is also a great example of polychrome printing and the generous use of Prussian blue, seen in the sea and the sky, suffusing the entire scene in its intense brilliance.

The opening of Japan in the following decades marked the beginning of ukiyo-e collecting in the West. A wave of Japonisme swept across Europe. “You can’t underestimate the impact of these Japanese prints on Western art,” says Borham. “The Impressionists went nuts over these prints when they began to be imported.”

The off-center composition, cropping of figures, flat planes of color, and geometric approaches to space were particularly revelatory to artists working in Paris. The legacy and influence of these pictures of the floating world can be seen not only in the works of great Impressionists like Monet, Degas, Van Gogh, Matisse and company, but also in Japanese art today, in manga and anime, and especially the wondrous world of Hayao Miyazaki.

“I love the idea of this sort of ‘slice of life’ quality [in ukiyo-e prints],” remarks Borham.“We too are urban inhabitants who walk around town and participate in parades and festivals where we see various social classes of people interacting. In some ways it’s just so contemporary.”