The Shogun’s capital of Edo (modern Tokyo) was home to a million souls and a sophisticated urban culture by the early 1700s. Elite courtesans, kabuki actors and sumo wrestlers were the day's pop stars, setting fashion trends and standards of beauty. Just outside the city, a walled and moated red-light district, the Yoshiwara, was both a popular resort and a cultural symbol -- summarized by the phrase “the floating world,” with its connotations of pleasure, wit, beauty and sex.
The city also supported a thriving art scene, which catered to the needs of elites who congregated at court, and a booming publishing industry of wood-block prints and books that fed the populace’s fantasies. These prints, paintings and other art objects associated with Edo-period (1615-1868) “floating world” culture are the subject of two new exhibits at the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, Seduction and The Printer’s Eye, both of which run through May 10, 2015.
The centerpiece of the Seduction exhibit is an elaborate, 58-foot painted scroll, “A Visit to the Yoshiwara," believed to have been commissioned by a member of the military elite. The scroll depicts in great detail the denizens, restaurants, tea shops and brothels of the pleasure quarters, where men could choose from among as many 4,000 prostitutes who worked there by 1800. Some women were trained in high-culture accomplishments, from calligraphy to music, and rose to elite status. But there were prostitutes for every pocketbook. Many women were sold into the sex trade as children by indebted families.
San Francisco artist and sexuality writer Midori, who grew up in Tokyo, finds echoes of this pleasure-seeking world in San Francisco today and back to its Barbary Coast past. As master of ceremonies for the exhibitions’ opening night party, Midori recruited dozens of local entertainers and artists, including burlesque and belly dancers, members of Theater of Yugen, and the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, who, for an evening, created their own floating world. Watch the video to explore the seductive world of old Edo and for highlights from the opening night event.
As part of KQED's Member Day program, KQED members receive free admission to the Asian Art Museum March 13 - March 14, 2015.