The woodcuts, or woodblock prints, displayed in this exhibition represent a form of popular urban culture that developed in Japan during the reign of the Tokugawa dynasty (1603-1867). In addition to the woodblock printing technique, this peaceful era in Japan's history gave rise to two related cultural innovations: the popular Kabuki theater and the "pleasure quarters" that trained courtesans and institutionalized prostitution.


1.Katsukawa Shun'ei
(1762-1819)
Love Triangle
Top: Ichikawa Komazo III
Left: Nakayama Tomisaburo I
Right: Sakata Hangoro III

The Tokugawa came to power at the beginning of the seventeenth century after a long period of internal warfare, and their shoguns ruled Japan for more than 250 years. To strengthen and consolidate their regime, they closed the gates of Japan to foreign influences and divided the people into four classes, separating the samurai warrior elite from the lower-class peasants, craftsmen, and merchants. The daimyo feudal lords and their armies of samurai were obliged to spend half their time in the new capital, Edo (today Tokyo). The city's expanding male population and economic growth, together with the rise of a mercantile class, intensified demands for luxury and entertainment, which contributed to the city's development and encouraged the establishment of its famous Yoshiwara Quarter in 1618.

There - and in the pleasure quarters of other cities - brothels, teahouses, and restaurants proliferated. Steadily amassing power and wealth, members of the ascending merchant class joined feudal lords and high-level officials in these places, passing the time and squandering their money.

The girls who entertained these men were bought from their families when they were between five and seven years of age. In the process of becoming courtesans, they received rigorous training in the traditional Japanese arts: the shamisen (a threestringed musical instrument), the tea ceremony, dance, calligraphy, the art of conversation, and other skills. Girls who were exceptionally beautiful and talented became upper-class courtesans (tayu, oiran). Unlike their lower class counterparts, these courtesans were not put on public display; they enjoyed respectful treatment and even had the privilege of choosing their own clients. Courtesans also played an important role in the development of Kabuki (literally, "the skill of song and dance"), a form of theater whose origins can be traced to the Shinto priestess Okuni and the comical, erotic performances staged by her female dance troupe. Kabuki theater houses were invariably situated near the pleasure quarter. In the early days following Okuni's death, the original dancers were replaced by the pleasure girls.

These dancers would make merry with the audience offstage, and competition between customers for the attentions of the girls would frequently lead to quarrels. In an effort to protect public morals, the authorities banned erotic dancing and ordered that only males over the age of fifteen be allowed to perform as Kabuki actors. Consequently, till this day, only males appear on stage - even in female roles (fig. 1).


2.Katsukawa Shunsho (1726-1792)
The Actor Nakayama Kojuro VI Disguised as the Lamplighter of the Gion Shrine, 1785


3. Kitagawa Utamaro (1753-1806)
The Courtesan Hanaogi of the House of Ogiya Writing a Letter, 1794

The theater reflected the taste of the common folk, and its chief aim was to provide light entertainment, catching the eye with spectacular decor, costumes, and makeup. The stage productions dealt with historical motifs or tales from Japanese mythology, as well as realistic themes, for instance, a hopeless love affair between a commoner and a courtesan, in which rigid class divisions drive the lovers to despair and inevitable suicide.

Another development of the early seventeenth century was the woodblock print, which, as its themes suggest, was closely associated with both the pleasure quarter and the Kabuki theater. This form of art belongs to the ukiyo-e ("pictures of the floating world") genre, which is a reflection of the transient delights and the contrived "good life" of the pleasure quarters, and the escape they offered from the cares of everyday life. The prints portrayed courtesans, Kabuki actors, and the way of life of the pleasure quarters. They were bought by commoners, who purchased them as souvenirs or as a mark of admiration for the actors and courtesans.

Thanks to the printing techniques, copies of the prints were mass produced and they were thus easily affordable to people of all classes. The prints were not considered true art, and were regarded the way posters of movie stars are regarded today. Just as Kabuki can be viewed as the popular version of the Noh theater, which catered to the upper class, woodblock prints can be thought of as the popular equivalent of the ink paintings that adorned aristocratic homes.

Initially, woodblock prints were used to illustrate books. But they quickly grew in size, filling whole pages, until they were finally produced as independent pictures.


4. Hosoda Eishi (1756-1829)
Courtesans at Leisure, late 1790s


5. Kikugawa Eizan (1787-1864)
Courtesan in the Snow, 1820s

Some appeared in fashion catalogues, while others were used for advertising, to be hung outside the theater and all over town. The artistic quality was never highly regarded at the time, and the creators never won the recognition granted to those who produced ink paintings - despite the fact that ink painters sometimes also created woodblock prints in order to augment their incomes.

Today, however, some of the woodblock printmakers are considered to be among the greatest Japanese artists of all time. The specific talents expressed in the prints - the ability to "freeze" a given moment, the choice of daring and innovative compositions never previously seen in Japanese art, the use of delicate contour lines to supply detail, and the creation of diagonal perspectives with no vanishing point - endowed these works with qualities that were distinctive and unique.

The prints of Kabuki actors portray figures and scenes from well-known plays. Actors wearing makeup and stage costumes are depicted in a static pose representing the climactic moments of their role in the play. Actors are identified by symbols on their costumes (fig. 2), as well as by inscriptions on the side of the print that give their names, the characters they play, and sometimes also the name of the production. Around the mid-eighteenth century, the stereotyped figures that characterized earlier prints were replaced by depictions that showed distinct facial features, so that the faces of individual actors became recognizable. The use of colored woodblock prints (nishiki-e) also developed at that time.

Prints depicting courtesans appeared under the general heading of "Beautiful Women." In these woodblock prints, special emphasis was placed on the courtesan's hairdo and kimono. The delicate (though expressionless) features, splendid poses, and striking appearance of the figures reflect the ideal of feminine beauty that the courtesans symbolized.

Concealing the harsh reality of the girls' actual experience, the portrayal creates the illusion of an affluent and glamorous life. In the woodblock prints of Kitagawa Utamaro and Hosoda Eishi, courtesans are seen writing or reading (figs. 3 and 4), and the fine detailing emphasizes the depth of their inner worlds and their talents. The courtesan in Kikugawa Eizan's picture fills the composition; here, the artist uses bold, contrasting colors, in addition to the subject's posture, to create an image of a model flaunting her beauty and her costume (fig. 5).

Some of these prints are rich in symbols and allusions that lead the observer beyond what is actually portrayed. In The Hour of the Hare (fig. 6), for example, the courtesan holds the coat of a client who is not visible. In Courtesan after an Intimate Meeting (fig. 7) by Suzuki Harunobu, the bare foot peeking out, the additional kimono hanging over the folding screen, and the disheveled clothing of the woman all suggest that we are looking at a courtesan after an intimate encounter with a man who is already out of sight. The long, narrow format of pillar prints (hashira-e) represents a glimpse of the life of a courtesan through a narrow opening, a glimpse that entices the viewer to complete the picture in his mind.


6. Kitagawa Utamaro (1753-1806)
The Hour of the Hare [between five and seven o'clock], ca. 1795


1. Suzuki Harunobu (1725-1770)
Courtesan after an Intimate Meeting

 

About the Collector
Born in Germany in 1917, Jacob Pins immigrated to Palestine in 1936. He first came across a Japanese print in the mid- 1940s, after studying woodblock art under Jacob Steinhardt in Jerusalem. In time, he became an expert collector in the field of Asian art, influencing an entire generation of young collectors. Pins is first and foremost an artist in his own right; he has won acclaim for his woodblock prints and oil paintings, and his works can be found in the world's leading museums and in major private collections. His keen eye and vast knowledge of the art of woodblock printing have greatly contributed to our understanding of Japanese art; their mark is evident in his scholarly book dealing with pillar prints, and is reflected throughout his personal collection. His house has always been open to lovers of Asian art, connoisseurs and laymen alike. In the year 2001, he generously enriched the Israel Museum with his important collection of over 500 works of Asian art and his library of over 3,000 books on the subject.

Exhibition curator: Etty Glass-Gissis
Curator-in-charge:
Rebecca Bitterman
Exhibition design:
Talma Levin

Photography: Meidad Suchowolski The Israel Museum, Jerusalem, 2004


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