The Floating World: Masami Teraoka and His Art

Director's Biography
Filmmaker Louise Lo has produced and directed a number of documentaries, many of which have aired on KQED. Like The Floating World, several of her productions have examined the lives of artists, including A Piece of Cake about Pop artist Wayne Thiebaud, Frida Kahlo: Portrait of an Artist about the Mexican painter and wife of Diego Rivera, and Julia Morgan: A Life by Design about the architect who designed Hearst Castle. She has also produced programs on Asian American subjects, such as Dust and Threads about Asian immigrant women, and served as Project Director on Silk Screen, a PBS series about Asian Americans.

The Influence of Traditional Japanese Arts
Masami Teraoka was born in Japan in 1936, received his early arts training there, and studied aesthetics at university in Kobe. Teraoka has a deep affinity for the traditional art of ukiyo-e as well as other Japanese traditions, such as kabuki, calligraphy, tattooing, and folklore. His art combines these Japanese influences with Western forms, resulting in works of fresh originality.

While inspired by the traditions of the past, Teraoka speaks compellingly to the modern world. Like the ukiyo-e masters of old, he uses his art as social criticism, dealing -- at times humorously, at times provocatively -- with some of the most pressing issues of our day, such as cultural conflict, environmental pollution, AIDS, and the impact of computer technology.

In the 1970s, in reaction to the consumer society which he encountered, Teraoka painted two series, McDonald's Hamburgers Invading Japan and 31 Flavors Invading Japan, which marked the beginning of a unique style synthesizing his two worlds. In these paintings, he takes ukiyo-e images of geishas and samurais and juxtaposes them with American Pop Art images of hamburgers and ice cream cones. He often puts himself in these cross-cultural scenes, for example, showing himself as a startled, kimono-clad man attacked by a flying hamburger. The works poke fun both at America's fast food culture which has "invaded" Japan and Japan's eagerness to adopt American ways.

In other paintings, Teraoka expresses his concern that modern consumerism will lead to the deterioration of the environment. In Los Angeles Sushi Ghost Tales/Fish Woman and the Artist, he shows himself eating sushi while a horrifying fish in the form of a Japanese ghost expels pollution from its mouth. The painting combines traditional Japanese ghost legends with the popularity of sushi in Los Angeles to castigate man's pollution of the seas.

Ukiyo-e flowered during the Edo period (1615-1868), when the emergence of a unified government in Japan gave birth to a large urban population which frequented Edo's (now Tokyo's) pleasure quarters, known as ukiyo, or "the floating world." Ukiyo originally had a negative connotation as a Buddhist term for the transitory, ephemeral pleasures of the world. Eventually, the word came to mean a world in which sensual pleasures were valued and celebrated. Ukiyo-e, meaning "pictures of the floating world," was the art which recorded the life of Edo's demimonde -- courtesans, samurais, geishas, and kabuki actors. Instead of the traditional ukiyo-e form of woodblock printing, however, Teraoka chooses to create his works as watercolor paintings.

In addition to portraying the denizens of "the floating world," ukiyo-e masters, such as Hokusai, Hiroshige, Kunisada, Kuniyoshi, and Utamaro, favored scenes from kabuki theatre patronized by Edo's merchant class, landscape views, and erotica. Of the ukiyo-e masters, Katsushika Hokusai (1759-1849) has had a particularly strong influence on Teraoka. Perhaps the most memorable of Hokusai's works are his views of Mt. Fuji, considered a sacred site since ancient times, and his depictions of giant waves. These prints have served as models for Teraoka's scenes of landscapes, seascapes, and ocean waves in California and Hawaii. Even in his views of nature, Teraoka takes the American environment and lays over it his Japanese sensibilities. These paintings are an homage to Hokusai's classical style and the Japanese affinity for nature, a strong, traditional value.

Ukiyo-e artists were also proponents of shunga, which were erotic prints, paintings, and books. At the end of the 18th century, portraits of partially nude female abalone divers were especially popular subjects of shunga. In a famous work, Pearl Diver and Two Octopuses, Hokusai depicts a female diver in blissful union with nature, represented by octopuses. Teraoka's Wave series of erotic paintings illustrates the same theme as the Hokusai original. In adopting ukiyo-e's penchant for sexual and erotic themes, Teraoka uses them to reflect intercultural dynamics between Japan and the United States. In his art, he celebrates sensuality and sexuality, offering a Japanese alternative to American sexual morality and its puritanical constraints.

Teraoka's work pays tribute to many time-honored traditions of Japan, not only ukiyo-e but also kabuki, calligraphy, tattooing, and folklore. His figures often strike classic mie poses from kabuki theater, stylized gestures of concentrated emotion and drama. Animal and human forms from Japanese folklore, such as the mythic catfish, trickster fox, and magical ninja, appear frequently in his work. Over the years, Teraoka painstakingly taught himself Edo-style calligraphy in order to incorporate it into his paintings

In 1850, as the Tokugawa Shogunate declined, Japan's contending political factions were on the brink of a bloody civil war. Ukiyo-e artists of the period used their prints to lambaste political corruption and social disorder and to warn of the violence and chaos to come. Increasingly censored, they employed subterfuge in the form of narratives, seals, cartouches, and visual clues and puns to convey their political messages. During the past few years, Teraoka's art has focused on the darker side of life. In his paintings dealing with AIDS, urban violence, and the impact of computer technology, he explores the social upheavals of today's world, as did the ukiyo-e artists during the final days of the Shogunate.

Links to ukiyo-e sites:
Library of Congress
The Gitter-Yellen Art Center




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Masami Teraoka's site