Artists of the Floating World
Obtaining Images: Art, Production and Display in Edo Japan
By Timon Screech (Reaktion Books 384pp £29.95)
In 1871 Claude Monet stumbled across a pile of Japanese prints in an Amsterdam shop and snapped them up. His discovery transformed Western perceptions of Japan (though Japanese art had first arrived in the West some decades earlier), inspiring artists such as Van Gogh and Whistler, as well as Monet himself, and sparking Japonisme, the enthusiasm for all things Japanese that swept across Europe.
Today Hokusai's Great Wave is one of the most recognisable images in the world. In fact Westerners tend to equate Japanese art with wood-block prints, which, as Timon Screech writes in Obtaining Images, 'would have chilled the blood of the shogunate and of most sober-minded people of the period'. To Japanese of the time, wood-block prints were akin to pin-up posters by and for the lower orders. Real art was very different.
Screech is Professor of the History of Art at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London and the author of memorably witty and insightful books such as Sex and the Floating World: Erotic Imagery in Japan, 1720-1810, a study of prints that to Western eyes look decidedly pornographic. Obtaining Images is his most ambitious work yet, a crisply written and copiously illustrated account of Japanese art throughout the Edo period (1603-1868). In it he explores not just the art but its context: why it was made, for whom, how much it cost, who would have seen it, and what it meant to the people of the day.
A detail from a handscroll shows a bridge over the River Sumida in Edo, present-day Tokyo, bustling with people. But who would have commissioned it, and why? Works painted on folding screens, room dividers or scrolls to hang in alcoves were for public display, but a small painting on a fan or a handscroll, like this one, was for private perusal. People who seldom went out, such as high-ranking ladies, had handscrolls to while away the long hours, enabling them to picture the lively world outside their walls, which they had very little chance of ever seeing themselves.
The higher a person's rank, the more secluded their life was. Dutch merchants stationed in Nagasaki had an audience with the shogun once a year. When one merchant tried to sneak a look at him, an official promptly shoved his face down on the floor. A Japanese who went to Russia brought back a portrait of Catherine the Great. The revelation that there were countries where commoners could actually depict and see their ruler was so subversive that the traveller was locked away for the rest of his life.
This affected portraiture. If the artist, a lower-class man, was not allowed to enter your presence, let alone look at you, how could he paint your portrait? The Kanō, the official painters of the shogun's court, had military rank and could mix more freely with the higher orders. But they still couldn't look on people of very superior rank. When the retired emperor Go-Mizunoo wanted his portrait painted, his son, who was a monk and thus allowed to meet lay people of any rank, posed for the artist wearing his father's clothes. Then he sketched his father's face and the artist copied the sketch onto the portrait.
The Kanō were part of the apparatus of government. They painted castle and temple interiors with images that bolstered and underlined the shogun's power: landscapes, auspicious beasts and heroic battles of the past, against lavish gold backgrounds. Nij_ Castle, the shogun's residence in Kyoto, is a fine example of the Kanō style. The gold-encrusted walls of the vast audience hall are painted with pine trees, with one spreading its branches above the shogun's seat. Pine trees are venerable and long-lived, just as the shogun intended his government to be.
Every element in a Japanese painting has symbolic value, chosen for its auspicious nature. Catalogue entries that describe a work merely as 'birds and flowers' entirely miss the point. Specific creatures have specific meanings and are associated with particular plants and seasons. Cranes go with pines, tortoises with bamboo, and all four signify long life. Screech quotes a humorous poem to the effect that the inept artist adds bamboo to an image so that the viewer will know that the animal in his picture is a tiger, not a cat. Tigers went with bamboos, cats with peonies.
While the Kanō were the official painters of the shogunate, the Tosa worked for the emperor's court in Kyoto. The court's power had been wrested away by the shogunate centuries earlier. Its entire claim to reverence was that it perpetuated classical Japanese tradition. The Tosa painted scenes of the exquisite world of the ancient court. The snag was that the most revered classics, The Tale of Genji and The Tales of Ise, depict lives of utter decadence. Genji the Shining Prince spends his time seducing court ladies, while Narihira, the hero of The Tales of Ise, defiles the virgin priestess of Ise Shrine. Both are banished but neither seems to suffer, in the case of Narihira 'sleeping with women and boys, poeticizing sublimely, and ... having a very good time'. Artists had to find ways of portraying the classics without appearing to condone such behaviour, so a school of art developed showing exquisitely painted figures in virtually abstract landscapes, far removed from real life.
It was not that lax behaviour was forbidden. Under the shoguns it was permitted, so long as it remained in its proper place: the Floating World of the pleasure quarters and kabuki theatre. Unlike the shogun and the emperor, kabuki actors needed to be seen and recognised: among the printmakers of the Floating World the skill of creating good likenesses was much refined. Few people could actually afford to go to the pleasure quarters, so prints of beautiful courtesans were more a gorgeous fantasy than an accurate depiction.
Towards the end of the period, the Yoshiwara pleasure quarter was falling into decline. Floating World artists casting about for new subjects began depicting landscapes as well as actors and courtesans. Some experimented with Western techniques such as perspective, and synthetic Prussian blue had just arrived. For the first time Japanese artists had a blue that did not fade, perfect for skies and seas.
The scene was set for Katsushika Hokusai's iconic Great Wave, completed around 1833. Twenty years later the American Commodore Perry arrived with his 'Black Ships' to force Japan to open to the West, changing the face of Japan and Japanese art forever.
Obtaining Images is a beautiful book, full of insights on every page. Timon Screech transforms our view of Japanese art, showing it to us through the eyes of the people who made, commissioned, bought and saw it, and in the process taking us right under the skin of this very different society and mindset.
Exclusive from the Literary Review print edition. Subscribe now!
Lesley Downer is the author of Geisha: The Secret History of a Vanishing World and other books on Japan. Her latest book is a novel, Across A Bridge of Dreams (Bantam).