Realm of the sensual: Drama and Desire at the MFA

Chris Bergeron

Brushing aside a silk screen, a courtesan in a red kimono gazes serenely at the riotous life passing before her latticed parlor in the Yoshiwara Pleasure Quarter in 18th century Japan.

In a sumptuous six-panel screen painted by Miyagawa Choshun, women in the high-class brothel lazily pluck the samisen or write letters while passing men sneak peeks through open windows.

Don't be shy. Accept the invitation in her calm black eyes to enter the "floating world" where Kabuki actors, sensuous courtesans and stately geishas commingle in an ancient realm of pleasure and refinement.

Instead of in the ancient capital of Edo, this alluring world of "Drama and Desire" is now flourishing at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston in an exhibit as alluring as its subjects.

Drawn from the MFA's extensive collection, this gorgeous show features 83 rare ukiyo-e paintings, scrolls, banners and theatrical signboards by world-renowned masters that depict 160 lively years of Japanese life in bold images.

Although it may seem an esoteric subject to nonspecialists, viewers may discover a shared humanity linking ancient Japan and other epochs where cultivated licentiousness was immortalized in fine art.

Native to Japan, ukiyo-e is art from woodblock prints or paintings depicting scenes and motifs associated with the pleasure quarters of metropolitan centers like Edo, now Tokyo, produced between the 17th and 20th centuries.

The exhibit showcases works by three of Japan's greatest ukiyo-e masters Hokusai, Utamaro and Hiroshige most which have not been shown in Boston since first exhibited 115 years ago.

MFA Director Malcolm Rogers said the works in the show are so rare and light sensitive that they "may not be seen together again" for many years to come.

"The Museum of Fine Arts is fortunate to have in its possession the greatest collection in the world of ukiyo-e paintings, which we are now able to share with our visitors since they were initially acquired and brought to the United States in the late 1800s," he said.

"(We) have the unique ability to introduce our visitors to the magic of the floating world."

Subtitled "Japanese Paintings from the Floating World, 1690-1850," it runs through Dec. 16 in the Torf Gallery.

Organized by Anne Nishimura Morse, the William and Helen Pounds curator of Japanese art, it draws from the museum's holding of 700 ukiyo-e paintings, regarded as the largest collection in the world.

Morse said the breadth of the museum's collection allows visitors to see not merely woodblock prints that were mass produced but "paintings (that) allow the viewer to come into direct contact with the hand of the artist."

Like a Chicago speakeasy in the Roaring Twenties, the "floating world" of Edo period Japan was a point of convergence for dramatic cultural and artistic changes shaping Japan. The scrolls and prints on display depict both refinement and outright carnality in vividly stroked images that seem to shimmer in the imagination as if glimpsed through rice paper walls.

Morse characterized Edo-era Japan as "a society trying to break free of strict military controls" and described the courtesans as "trend setters like the supermodels of their time."

Morse has organized the exhibit mostly in chronological order into five sections: Early Ukiyo-e, 1690-1765; An Air of Innocence, 1765-1780: Suzuki Harunobu and his Contemporaries; Images of Feminine Allure, 1780-1805: Torii Kiyonaga and Kitagawa Utamaro; Utagawa School, 1780-1850; and Katsushika Hokusai: The Man Mad About Painting.

Founded in the early 17th century by the reigning shogun, Tokugawa Ieyasu, Edo came to be known as a "castle town under heaven" where males, merchants, samurai and even laborers sought pleasures ranging from music, Kabuki theater, poetry and more fleshy delights in the licensed brothel districts.

As delicate as a courtesan's fan, the art on display cuts through social artifice like a samurai's blade.

Seldom has a coquettish glance conveyed such passion. A courtesan scrunches her toes together in barely restrained delight as she reads a love letter.

Rarely has everyday eroticism shimmered so boldly and brightly as in the frank couplings depicted in Katsukawa Shucho's "Collection of Suggestive Pictures."

Viewers will discover a remarkable variety of genres and styles.

Perhaps the single most outstanding objects are six-panel screens attributed to Hishikawa Moronobu that capture life in the pleasure quarters and kabuki theater in fabulous detail reminiscent of Pieter Bruegel.

There are gorgeously rendered scenes from everyday life like "Three Women Playing Musical Instruments" by Katsushika Oi, and subtle parodies like "The Three Vinegar Tasters" in which Chobunsai Eishi subverts traditional fables with denizens of the "floating world."

And while Hokusai may be most familiar to Western viewers, few have seen his strange and stunning scroll, "Zhong Kui, the Demon Queller," a mythic figure brushed in flaming red strokes.

Gertrude Stein's Paris is long gone. Stephen Spender's decadent Berlin is a dark memory. But Edo's "floating world" is once again offering its lively pleasures just off Huntington Avenue.

THE ESSENTIALS:

The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, is open seven days a week. Hours are: Saturday through Tuesday, 10 a.m. to 4:45 p.m.; and Wednesday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 9:45 p.m.; (Thursday and Friday after 5 p.m. only the West Wing is open).

Several programs are offered in conjunction with the exhibit. They include:

  • A three-session course, "Arts of the Floating World," on consecutive Tuesdays or Thursday, starting Oct. 9 and 11. Call for details.
  • Saturday, Oct. 27, 10:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.: Symposium."Arts of Japan: A Celebration." $30 for members. $40 for nonmembers.
  • Sunday, Nov. 18, 2 p.m.: Remis Auditorium: Arata Isozaki will deliver the Esther Steinberg Memorial Architecture Lecture. $18 for members. $22 for nonmembers.

General admission (which includes two visits in a 10-day period but does not include Gund Gallery exhibitions) is $17 for adults, $15 for senior citizens and students 18 and older. Students who are university members are free.

Admission is free for children 17 and under during nonschool hours.

For general information, call 617-267-9300 or visit www.mfa.org.