THE BLOG

Adrift in the Floating World at San Francisco's Asian Art Museum

02/26/2015 01:19 pm ET | Updated Apr 28, 2015

I've just spent a day savoring two related exhibitions at San Francisco's Asian Art Museum. I lived in Japan for a year after college and have a particular interest in the arts and traditions of that country. So does my friend Linda Jue, who went with me (and is the only person who moves through a museum more slowly than I do, a seemingly impossible feat). But I'm quite sure the items on view would please even those who think they have no interest in art, Japanese or otherwise.

From well-known woodblock prints, many people are familiar with the term ukiyo-e, which refers to pictures (-e), that is, paintings and prints, about the "floating world" (ukiyo) -- the world of evanescent pleasures in old Tokyo (Edo) in the period just before the West intruded on that insular society (1615-1868). Political and military power lay in the hands of the shogun -- another term familiar to Westerners, thanks to movies and novels -- and the country's warlords were required to spend a good chunk of the year in Edo. With each lord bringing hundreds of samurai with him, it's no wonder a gated, one-entrance, moat-enclosed neighborhood in which they could pass the time apart from the citizenry was created.

This pleasure district was Yoshiwara, two miles downriver from the city center. The wondrous centerpiece of Seduction: Japan's Floating World is "A Visit to the Yoshiwara," a 58-foot-long scroll painting created for a wealthy patron by Hishikawa Moronobu, an artist who married one of the district's courtesans, in the 17th century. It's in a room-length vitrine, and you truly could spend hours looking at it. This intricate virtual tour begins outside the gate and slowly takes you through the pleasure quarter, past restaurants, tea houses and shops (including that of a money changer) and the required parade of well-dressed courtesans and their attendants, along with musicians, workmen, chefs and sword-carrying samurai, many of whom wear cone-shaped straw hats to hide their identity.

Eventually, you reach a few of the hundred-plus brothels in which the men also enjoyed entertainment, food, drink and ritual activity, such as sipping from three red cups of sake with the chosen woman, a rite also performed during weddings (!). In the final image, we see men paying for their evening in the Yoshiwara, a sum that could rise to the equivalent of $13,000 today. (And you thought an orchestra seat at the opera was expensive.)

In addition, the exhibition offers bright-colored paintings and woodblock prints, six rare illustrated guidebooks and a handful of beautiful things that echo items in the minute detail of the scroll, such as the three stacked sake bowls and an elegant kimono-shaped bed cover. Other highlights of the exhibition, most of which comes from the collection of John C. Weber, are several of the 500 kimono and other textiles he was able to gather "because no one else seemed to be interested." How could they not be?? You don't have to be a fan of couture or Project Runway to be delighted and amazed by the gorgeous, intricately designed robes, worn by the wives of wealthy merchants and high-level women of the era, on display.

But back to the Yoshiwara. Through their clothing and hairdos, the most famous and fashionable courtesans set the style standards, which reached the masses via woodblock prints, the mass media of the day. Some of Weber's prints depict Kabuki actors, another aspect of Edo-era entertainment. The accompanying exhibition highlights beautifully preserved woodblock prints from the Grabhorn Collection, a fascinating display in its own right.

I'm glad to say the exhibitions do not overlook the sordid side of the lives of the some 4,000 women -- both courtesans and street prostitutes -- who lived and worked and usually never escaped the Yoshiwara. The context is everything. But by now, so is the art. I say don't miss it.

Through May 10, Seduction: Japan's Floating World and The Printer's Eye: Ukiyo-e From the Grabhorn Collection, Asian Art Museum, 200 Larkin St., S.F., 415.581.3500, asianart.org.