That new realm is the subject of a dazzling exhibition at Paris' Grand Palais. "Images du Monde Flottant" (Images of the Floating World), which runs until Jan. 3, brings together more than 200 screens, scrolls and prints from Japan, the U.S., Britain, Germany and, especially, Paris' famed Musée Guimet. And what a world it was—a paradise of courtesans and Kabuki stars, teahouses and "green houses," where courtesans entertained their customers. All of it was tolerated, though watched closely, by the shogunate. Originally the term "floating world," or ukiyo, referred to the Buddhist notion that the everyday grind of travail and tears is ephemeral. Yet the proprietors and patrons of the leisure districts that sprang up on the outskirts of Edo (Tokyo), Kyoto and Osaka in the 1600s turned that concept on its head. Life was to be savored. "Living only for the moment, turning our full attention to the pleasures of the moon, the snow, the cherry blossoms and the maples," as novelist Asai Ryoi wrote in 1661, "singing songs, drinking wine, and diverting ourselves in just floating, floating like a gourd, floating along with the river current."
Artists went along for the cruise. Painting had flourished in Japan for centuries, displaying a flair for landscapes and portraiture, plus a charming disregard for perspective (until it was introduced from the West in the early 18th century). Now, though, Japan's painters began to focus instead on portraying pleasure seekers. Elaborate, gold-drenched silken screens and scrolls depicted, for the first time, ordinary Japanese amusing themselves in beauty spots like Mount Fuji or inside a stately home. The exhibition's anonymous Entertainment in a Residence (1640-50) shows people making music, drinking, dancing, playing cards and reading letters amid golden clouds and elaborate foliage.
The self-declared pioneer of "floating-world pictures," or ukiyo-e, was painter Okumura Masanobu, and the show has seven of his best. Woman Turning Around (1688-1704), for instance, exudes spontaneity, elegance as well as the faint air of melancholy that is typical of ukiyo-e—a reminder that pleasure is often best when bittersweet. Soon, however, the public wanted not just emotion but cheap, portable souvenirs of their visits to the pleasure pits—even if they lacked the nerve to actually enter. To the occasion rose the wood-block printmaking business. At first its images were mainly black and white, as they had been almost since the art form arrived from China in the 8th century. By the early 1600s, printmakers had learned how to run a sheet of paper over two identical wood blocks, each one inked in a different color. By the 1740s several blocks were being used for a single picture, and luxurious calendars featuring polychrome prints became popular as New Year's gifts among smart Edo residents. King of the calendar prints was Suzuki Harunobu, whose Beauty Taking the Air by a River (1765-66), of a slender young woman in a subtle rose kimono, is one of the best among his dozens in the show.
"Floating-world" art was propelled by the rise of Kabuki, a form of theater that began one night in 1603, when a priestess named Okuni performed in Kyoto dressed as a kabukimono, or dissolute samurai. The shogunate soon barred women from the stage, but male actors embodying the expressive new style developed large followings—and eager customers for their portraits. A lively example is Katsukawa Shunsho's The Actors Ichikawa Danzo III and Onoe Tamizo I, in which the two men portray a courtesan and a samurai with an intensity that literally defies gravity. Other ukiyo-e scenes were drawn from popular literature, especially the tagasode painting theme—literally "Whose sleeves are these?"—a 17th century meditation on an empty kimono. The original poem inspired numerous still-lifes of clothing and fashion accessories suggesting the essence of a beautiful but absent woman. One example in the exhibition, an anonymous 17th century six-fold screen depicting richly embroidered kimonos on a gold background, shimmers with Klimt-like sensuality.
The master of capturing female beauty and the obvious star of the Paris show (with 46 works) is Kitagawa Utamaro. Little is known of his origins, but in 1791 he won fame both for a series of portraits of "floating-world" beauties and for his notorious affairs with them. Utamaro was arrested in 1804 for an impolitic portrait of the shogun with his concubines, and spent 50 days in irons. He is said to have been so depressed by this public disgrace that he soon died. One of his apprentices married his widow, adopted his name and used it to produce prints, exasperating collectors to this day. The original Utamaro brought a new sensitivity to uki-yo-e portraits, deftly capturing mood, nuance and drama through his simplicity of line and use of close-ups. Utamaro also produced his share of shunga—"images of spring," a euphemism for the era's abundant pornography—and the show has dozens of such scenes, three of them by Utamaro. All the images are elegant, erotic and almost clinically explicit, as their purpose was not just to titillate but to educate. A bride sometimes brought a collection of shunga along with the wedding furniture.
The "floating world" remained buoyant until the early 20th century, when the pleasure districts were undermined by the forces of modernization and Meiji-era reforms. The Grand Palais show's principal organizer, Guimet curator Hélène Bayou, sensibly stops at the late 19th century, when Japanese artists began to look beyond scenes of city life and toward the countryside. Thus, you won't find any works here by Katsushika Hokusai or Ando Hiroshige, two giants of Japanese landscape prints. Less defensibly, you also won't find much about the enormous impact ukiyo-e had on Western artists, especially France's own Impressionists, or even on present-day Japanese comic-strip art forms manga and animé. And a more adventuresome exhibition might even have added some footage from ukiyo-e-inspired films like Kenji Mizoguchi's masterful 1947 biopic Utamaro and his Five Women. But that's quibbling. Better simply to enjoy the bounty of color and line, to relish the beauty of women and nature, on display in this extraordinary monument to a very special world. Better just to float.