Paper delights

The cultural qualities of traditional Japanese aesthetics, in particular their sobriety and elegance, have always aroused great interest. Through their art, the great illustrators of the past have given us the possibility to discover and appreciate the most important aspects of these qualities.

Nico Zardo

In the city of Edo (the Tokyo of today) deep transformations took place between the 17th century up until the middle of the 19th century (that is up until Japan resisted in its splendid isolation). These transformations signed the passage of Japanese society from feudalistic to bourgeois. Initially, traditional principles of behaviour, inspired by religion, emphasised as positive values those of suffering and detachment from material possessions.

SINCE THE 1600’S, WITH THE CRISIS OF FEUDAL ARISTOCRACY AND THE STRONG URBANISATION OF THE CAPITAL CITY OF EDO, other customs, decisively opposite to the previous ones, started to take over.

Together with a cultural fervour of great intensity, a strong hedonistic attitude developed: a tendency to ephemeral pleasures such as fashion, feasts, self-representations and mercenary love.

The intense social and cultural activity of this period had been extensively represented and documented through drawings, books, prints and decorations on panels.

The works of art of masters of that time, like Morunobu, Harunobu, Utamaro, Hokusai, Kuniyoshi, splendidly displayed in an exhibition held in Milan in 2004, depict that world with a richness in details and translate everyday themes into visual representations. Theatre, tradition, nature, landscape, pleasures of the urban lifestyle and feminine beauties: these themes were part of the social and cultural reality of Edo.

THE KABUKI THEATRE WAS ESTABLISHED IN THE XVII CENTURY as a type of innovative and very popular representation, with narrative themes similar to our melodrama. Mainly, its success was based on the figure of the actor, who, with his interpretative qualities, was able to involve the spectators. He also maintained an individual popularity, thanks to the many portraits in circulation, which kept his image alive with the phenomenology of stardom, very much like that of our days. Hishikawa Moronobu was amongst the most famous artists who were able to visually narrate the actors’ expressive force and the scenic representation.

RESPECT FOR TRADITIONS like the use of the kimono the tea ceremony, competitions for poetic and calligraphic compositions and conservation of ancient myths - then as now - have always been part of Japanese culture, cohabiting and resisting the strong forces of change. Amongst the favourite stories, often adjusted to theatrical representations, there are those of unfortunate love: Utamaro interpreted one of these stories depicting two lovers while they are about to commit suicide.

NATURE IS SEEN AS SOMETHING ALIVE: flowers, animals, rivers and mountains are considered as living elements, with whom it is possible to establish a relationship of poetical symbiosis. Nature and landscapes are, for the artists of the time, important themes. For example, Hokusai’s work arouses great interest: the expressive force of his wave communicates the roaring force of the sea and the peaceful respect by nature’s spectator.

City life is represented through the business trades of artisans and merchants - the existence whom constitutes one of the most important elements for society’s evolution - the activities of the ‘quarters of pleasure’, courtesans parading along the main street and spectators admiring fireworks.

THE EXPEDITIOUS URBANISATION OF EDO started in 1635 and was determined by the norms of the Shogun Iemochi, which imposed to the two hundred and sixty vassals to reside, with relatives and courtesans, for one year in their own property and for another year in Edo. The most famous quarter was Yoshiwara, denominated the “city without night” because of its intense mundane activity. At the entrance of the quarter, delimited by a trench, was situated Tsutaya Juzaburo’s shop, considered the most refined editor in Japan, where it was possible to buy prints, books, paintings and works of calligraphy.

One of the most widespread methods for the artists of the ‘fluctuating world’ to earn a salary, was the production of prints and books on erotic themes - works which the artists were very careful not to sign clearly, (usually they would place their initials on a panel or on a painting represented inside the work itself) in order not to fall into the web of censure. The artists’ subterfuge was very well known, but conveniently ignored. Amongst these erotic representations, the most famous one was the Album of Song of Utamaro’s Pillow which is considered an important work of art for its representational technique and also for the intensity of the situation represented.

THE REPRESENTATION OF FEMININE BEAUTY constituted a dominant element and was rich in refined portrayals. The artists of that period interpreted, alternating in time, representations which privileged the physical and sensual aspect to that of a sweeter and idealistic one. Superior artistic qualities and an analysis of the feminine psychology, establish Utamaro’s style also in this realm, such that it allowed the viewer of his works to enter the secret world of the subtle pleasures of the city of Edo. •

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