Park West Gallery Presents Japanese Woodcut Collection
SUBJECTS IN JAPANESE PRINTS
The ‘Tale of Genji’, perhaps the first complete novel, was written by Lady Murasaki Shikibu in the eleventh century. A tale of Haian court life and the love adventures of the noble prince, the book is filled with descriptions of daily life in one of the most elegant courts in human history. Beginning with the famous Genji scrolls painted some two hundred years after the book was complete, Japanese artists have turned to the novel as a source of reference. The innovative woodblock artists of Edo, always with fruitful imagination, put the elegant Hein court in a time warp, dressing Genji and friends, as well as their surroundings, in the latest fads and fashions of the Yoshiwara.
By 1617, all the brothels in Edo were concentrated in one place, and were licensed for prostitution. After a disastrous fire in 1657, the New Yoshiwara emerges. In addition to brothels, there were restaurants, bath houses, wresting matches, great Kabuki theaters, and puppet shows. The courtesan was a star. She displayed the latest fashions in clothing and hairstyles. In the prints, we recognize her easily. Her obi is tied in front, and her hairdo is elaborate. She is often barefoot or wearing high geta (sandals). She carries a wad of tissues when on her way to a love adventure. She is often seen with apprentices — the shinzo, who are in training learning specialized techniques, and the kamuro, younger girls as yet still learning social graces (often seen in pairs). Teahouse attendants and geisha dress less elaborately, often wearing “tabi” socks. The geisha were entertainers, not courtesans. Married girls have had their eyebrows shaved. Young girls wear bright colors and gay patterns; older women wear subtler colors and small designs. It was a custom to blacken the teeth.
The work kabuki developed from the word “kabuku”, meaning “fashionable”. During the Edo period the theater was both fashionable and popular. Leisured wives and daughters of merchants, as well as ladies of the court, attended with regularity the only outside entertainment to which respectable women could go. Many of these women became friends and lovers of the famous actors. Most had to settle for portrait prints of their favorites. Women were not allowed to perform; therefore, men played the parts of women becoming truly believable in their role of the onnagata. Every aspect of the actors’ lives were depicted in woodblock prints, providing an inexhaustible supply of subject matter for artists.
To the Japanese, wrestling (sumo) is as much spiritual as physical. Formal techniques involve two hundred or so hand motions. In Edo, wrestlers, often owned by daimyo (feudal lords) were pitted against each other and graded accordingly. The various grades can be distinguished by hairstyles and the ornamentation of the ceremonial aprons. Although the Japanese are a small race, the sumo are tall and massively proportioned. The rope girdle with hanging gehei fringe indicated the highest rank of a wrestler.