Thursday, February 27, 2014

A College Essay: Art Exhibition Analysis of Japanese Woodcut Prints of the Edo Period

Art Exhibition Analysis
The Fitzwilliam Museum
Snow Country: Woodcuts of the Japanese Winter

     The Edo Period, lasting from 1603-1868 C.E., was a time in Japan where peace and prosperity were achieved through rigid and repressive forms of government. Neo-Confucianism replaced Zen Buddhism as the main intellectual force, and foreign ideas were discouraged, including traveling out of the country and allowing outsiders in. Edo, or modern-day Tokyo, was a center of a flourishing community and culture of tradespeople. These commoners were deeply Buddhist and lived by the mantra of living life to its fullest. From this philosophy, a pleasure district was born and named ukiyo after the “floating world.” This district housed theatres, bathhouses, restaurants, and brothels, all places to achieve earthly pleasures to fulfill their mantra. Actors and courtesans were portrayed in woodblock prints as samurai and aristocratic poets were in other art forms, as heroes. The woodblock prints became known as ukiyo-e, “pictures from the floating world.”(Cothren.) In looking at the woodblock prints from the Edo period, it is easy to identify the values of the country at the time.
Ki no Tomonori, Suzuki Harunobu

Geisha as Daruma Crossing the Sea, Suzuki Harunobu
      In looking at Suzuki Harunobu's Ki no Tomonori (1767-1768 CE) in the Fitzwilliam Museum's online gallery, the importance of poetry and cultural standards of beauty can be seen. The piece is from a series of thirty-six poets, in which a woodblock print was created to depict a then-modern interpretation of an 11th century poem. The poems were inscribed in a cloud at the top, and the scene below illustrated it. This particular piece portrays a woman and a young maid walking through the snow along the Sao river. Their garb is that of the 18th century in Japan, including high wooden sandals called geta, and split-toed socks called tabì. Both figures are portrayed in the ideal feminine form, with painted white faces and clothing that hint at the feminine physique underneath. This same idealism can also be seen in a more humorous of Harunobu's paintings, Geisha as Daruma Crossing the Sea (18th century CE) (Stokstad.) The geisha also wears her face painted and light robes that blow around her frame. This piece is a reference to the legend of a semi-legendary Indian monk, known as Daruma in Japan, who crossed a river on a reed. The geisha is performing this legendary act in a sharp and humorous contrast to the image of a Zen monk. This piece highlights the “live to the fullest” mantra by comparing the earthly pleasures brought by the geisha to enlightenment.
Overnight Snow in Yoshiwara, Keisai Eisen
The Nightmare, John Henry Fuseli
      The ideals of poetry and beauty can further be observed in Keisai Eisen's woodblock print Overnight Snow in Yoshiwara (1825 CE.) The scene depicts the image of a geisha looking out the window as a wealthy client leaves her apartment in a brothel. The poem on the left side of the piece compares her relationship to the client to the snow outside. The geisha wears rich, vibrant, and slightly disheveled robes, adding to the sensuality of the piece. In her hair is an elaborate headpiece that distracts from her coiffure of black hair. While artworks of America and Europe during this same time period had a completely different style and were more life-like, there were still sensual depictions of the female form, such as in John Henry Fuseli's painting The Nightmare (1781 CE), although the sensuality is much less direct than a scene from a brothel. In The Nightmare, a sleeping woman in white (possibly to symbolize virginity) strewn across a bed and dreaming an erotic dream that is brought by the demon sitting on her chest. The sensual nature and it's connection with the demon were meant to strike fear and emphasize sexuality as a sin, rather than celebrating earthly pleasures. (Stokstad.)
Kamedo Gyarô-une, Ogata Gekko
      In Ogata Gekko's print Kamedo Gyarô-ume (1895), the idealistic forms of women are continued, as well as hinting at the policy against foreign influence. In the piece, two women with the traditional painted white faces and sleek coiffures of hair are walking in the snow and admiring the plum trees. The women carry not the popular silk and steel western style umbrellas but the traditional paper and bamboo umbrellas called wagasa. The women's robes are thick for the cold weather but still hint at their feminine forms beneath. Both women wear the wooden geta. The posture and stance of the women is also highly feminine, a quality that is much-admired in the country.
Woman From Willendorf
     All of the above examples of the capturing of the idealistic feminine form keep with a tradition that has been around since the Upper Paleolithic Period. In the Upper Paleolithic piece Woman from Willendorf (c 24,000 BCE) the then-ideal forms of women, such as a bulging bellies, solid thighs, and large breasts, are captured in a stone figurine that was a totem of fertility. In ancient Egypt, the famous stone bust of Nefertiti by Tutumose captures the Egyptian queen in a way that is almost too ideal, making it a paragon of socially-accepted beauty over thousands of years and even into modern standards. In observing the woodblock prints of the Edo Period of Japan, we are able to identify not only the period's ideals of beauty but also other various values of its culture.
Works Cited
Cothren, Michael W. Art A Brief History, Books a La Carte Edition. By Marilyn Stokstad. 5th ed. N.p.: Pearson College Div, 2011. 4+. Print.
"The Fitzwilliam Museum : Snow Country Home." The Fitzwilliam Museum News. The Fitzwilliam Museum, 2 Oct. 2012. Web. 21 Feb. 2014.

Exhibition Link:

(I have added the photos of the prints for easier viewing for my readers. Photos are from either the Fitzwilliam Museum website [link above] or a Google search to help find the works I referenced from my textbook. Photos were not included in my graded essay.)

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