Japan's pleasure gardens on exhibit in 'Seduction' 

click to enlarge An 18th-century hanging scroll picturing courtesans promenading under cherry blossoms is among the works on view in the Asian Art Museum's new exhibition called "Seduction" - COURTESY JOHN C. WEBER COLLECTION
  • An 18th-century hanging scroll picturing courtesans promenading under cherry blossoms is among the works on view in the Asian Art Museum's new exhibition called "Seduction"
Call it what you will, the Asian Art Museum's new exhibit is all about s-e-x. Or, most precisely, "iroke," a Japanese term that encompasses sex and sensuality.

"Seduction: Japan's Floating World” is a show of some 50 artworks from the John C. Weber Collection that depict activities in 17th- and 18th-century "pleasure gardens" of Edo, the capital now known as Tokyo.

Laura W. Allen, curator of the exhibit and editor of the lavish catalog that accompanies it, says these quarters promised "limitless options for sex and play," but not quite in the manner of the West's red-light districts. The floating worlds included art, beauty, Kabuki theater, exquisite eating places and entertainment of all kinds.

Some of Japan's greatest artists of the era are represented in the exhibition, which opens Friday and runs through May 10.

Kubo Shunman's 1791 silk scroll, for example, shows demurely dressed courtesans under blossoming cherry trees.

A striking series of silk paintings by Utagawa Kuniyoshi depict the famous "Hell Courtesan," whose debauchery was redeemed by a Buddhist priest to assure a better future after reincarnation.

Some two dozen costumes from Weber's textile collection, dating from the 18th and 19th centuries, also are on view.

A highlight of the exhibition is Hishikawa Moronobu’s 58-foot long scroll, “A Visit to the Yoshiwara,” which offers a comprehensive view of Yoshiwara, perhaps the most famous of the districts. Officially licensed, it was a teeming 20-acre area near the city’s center.

The scroll leads the viewer from Yoshiwara’s main gate to scenes of street life, entertainment spots and brothels. Its depicts different ranks of prostitutes, a rich variety of colorful robes, and the cult of food – from tea-and-rice shops to elegant restaurants serving full-course meals.

Yoshiwara also served as a place to relocate illegal prostitutes arrested in teahouses outside the district. Courtesans – yûjo and jorô – were different from simple prostitutes, being experts in dance, music, conversation and other entertainment.

Idealized images of Yoshiwara show an epic larger than life, says the catalog, in "a marketing tour de force of collective efforts on the part of brothel owners, procurers, writers, publishers and painters."

“Seduction” includes prints and paintings by great 18th-and 19th-century artists Katsukawa Shunsho, Kitagawa Utamaro, Utagawa Kuniyoshi and Katsushika Hokusai, whose works previously have been seen at the Asian Asian Art Museum.

Complementing “Seduction” is "The Printer’s Eye: Ukiyo-e from the Grabhorn Collection," a show of woodblock prints donated to the museum by San Francisco art collector Edwin Grabhorn. These 18th century Ukiyo-e, or “pictures of the floating world,” also depict the pleasure-seeking way of life in Edo hotspots.


Seduction, The Printer's Eye

Where: Asian Art Museum, 200 Larkin St., S.F.

When: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays-Sundays, except until 9 p.m. Thursdays; closes May 10

Tickets: $10 to $15

Contact: (415) 581-3500, www.asianart.org

About The Author

Janos Gereben

Janos Gereben

Janos Gereben is a writer and columnist for SF Classical Voice; he has worked as writer and editor with the NY Herald-Tribune, TIME Inc., UPI, Honolulu Star-Bulletin, San Jose Mercury News, Post Newspaper Group, and wrote documentation for various technology companies.
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