Monday, February 18, 2008

Drama and Desire: Japanese Paintings from the Floating World

Drama and Desire: Japanese Paintings from the Floating World 1690-1850 opened Friday at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco and runs through April 2008. The exhibition of Japanese paintings from the permanent collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston has traveled from Kobe, Japan to Nagoya to Tokyo to the Kimbell Museum then back to their usual home in Boston and on to Ontario and now San Francisco. The exhibition is stunning. Hokusai's ukiyo-e woodcuts may be quite familiar but the chance to see his paintings on silk was revelatory. Two paintings in particular stood out:

Hokusai's Woman Looking at Herself in a Mirror (Kyômen bijin zu) is a work of extreme elegance and beauty. A woman stands before a mirror, a cherry seductively lolls in her mouth, and in her right hand she holds a letter. A poem inscribed on the scroll by the poet Shima Tokki reads:

Does that letter from
the man she waits for promise
a summer's night out?

Katsushika Hokusai, Japanese, 1760–1849
Woman Looking at Herself in a Mirror
Kyômen bijin zu
91 1/8" x 31 9/16" (Image: 54 5/8" x 22 5/8") ink, color, gold, and mica on silk c.1805
detail - full image below

There is an immediacy and humor in Hokusai's work that seems to beckon us into his view of a vanished world.

Hokusai's festival banner, Zhong Kui, the Demon Queller (Shû Shôki zu nobori), was painted in liquid inks and possibly cinnabar which was thought to provide protection from disease. Zhong Kui's garments seem to rustle in winds brought forth by impending struggles. The Demon Queller is resolute, moving briskly forward, grasping his sword, ready to battle demons, disease or misfortunes that might spring forth on the road ahead.

Katsushika Hokusai 1760–1849
Zhong Kui, the Demon Queller
Shû Shôki zu nobori
92 15/16" x 37" painted banner; color with ink on cotton c. 1805
Images of Zhong Kui, the Demon Queller, were hung in Japan on Boy's Day held on May 5th. In China woodcuts of the Demon Queller were also hung on May 5th during the Dragon Boat Festival.

Another important aspect of the exhibition Drama and Desire is the inclusion of erotic paintings known as shunga which are rarely exhibited. Until recently the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston stored and catalogued these paintings away from the main collection. Eishi's handscroll contains twelve erotic scenes under the title - The Elephant's Leash. The title refers to a Buddhist sutra that describes how a woman's hair could capture even a wild elephant.
Eishi's vivid images imagine how this force could entwine an amorous couple.

Chôbunsai Eishi, 1756–1829
The Elephant’s Lure
13 3/8" x 222 15/16" handscroll: ink, color, gold, and mica on silk 1804–1818


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