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Artful way to advertise

Images of Edo's `floating world' of pleasure: signs of their times.

April 20, 2006|Alex Chun | Special to The Times

IN the film "Memoirs of a Geisha," a jealous Hatsumomo (Gong Li) rips down a trio of posters depicting her upstart rival Sayuri (Ziyi Zhang).

Those posters, which advertise Sayuri as the lead performer in a Kabuki-style show, are a prime example of ukiyo-e ("pictures of the floating world") -- art that originated in the city of Edo (1616-1868, now Tokyo) that portrays idealized renditions of courtesans and geisha. And by no small coincidence, ukiyo-e is also the subject of the Pacific Asia Museum's current exhibition, "Reflections of Beauty: Women From Japan's Floating World."

The term "floating world" refers to Japan's pleasure quarters, licensed and unlicensed urban areas of Edo that housed courtesans, geisha, restaurants and Kabuki theater, said Meher McArthur, the museum's curator of East Asian art.

The ukiyo-e, which were either painted commissions or posters sometimes produced in the thousands, were often created to promote the courtesans and geisha, who literally and symbolically embodied physical beauty, cultural refinement and erotic love.

"Men would drool over the images, while women would see the images and model their fashions after the courtesans," McArthur says. "They were kind of the Esquire and Vogue of their day."

The exhibition features more than 75 pieces and includes woodblock prints, ceramics and a rare complete geisha hair and makeup set that belonged to the daughter of a feudal lord.

A focal point of the show is a group of original paintings by some of the most important artists of the period, including Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849) and his students. The majority of the paintings come from the museum's collection, with many mounted on scrolls and bordered by silk or kimono fabric.

Though the museum scheduled the exhibition's March opening to coincide with publicity surrounding "Memoirs of a Geisha," McArthur says they had to be careful in the way they presented the show so as not to reinforce stereotypes. "We wanted to make clear who these women were and what they did," she says.

To that end, and because she was taking maternity leave, McArthur brought in Kendall Brown, the museum's adjunct curator of Japanese art, to mount the show.

According to Brown, who teaches art history at Cal State Long Beach, his primary goal for the exhibition was to educate, and as an example, he cites the fact that in ukiyo-e not all women wearing kimonos are geisha.

"Geisha are not just what are portrayed by the Western stereotype, and in fact, some of the people wearing kimonos are men," he says. "There's this genre in Kabuki theater where all the roles, including the young female roles, are played by men, and this was a culture that in some ways was bisexual or androgynous."

Answering the most frequently asked question, Brown and McArthur confirm that courtesans and geisha did engage in prostitution. "It was a continuum, however, and most high-ranking ones could choose to sleep with a client or not," McArthur says. "At the same time, they had to be extremely knowledgeable, very well educated, and had to be fascinating and fascinated with their patrons to keep them hooked."

In a twist on tradition and to show that images of courtesans and geisha still resonate today, Brown also included in the exhibition works by contemporary artists Moira Hahn, Masami Teraoka, Iona Rozeal Brown and Gajin Fujita, a graffiti artist whose work was recently featured at LACMA.

"Gajin was raised in East Los Angeles in a largely Hispanic culture, and in his work you can see parallels between the floating world of urban Edo and today's culture in Los Angeles," says Brown, who this Saturday will moderate a panel on ukiyo-e and contemporary art. "Flipping things the other way is Iona Rozeal Brown, whose painting reflects what she saw in Japan a few years ago -- young Japanese women into hip-hop culture who are tanning themselves to be as dark as possible, the antithesis of the white-faced geisha, and doing their hair in cornrows."

Also part of the panel is Long Beach-based Hahn, who was smitten with ukiyo-e when she was introduced to Hokusai's work as a college student. Today, as the art department chair at Santiago Canyon College in Orange, she sees the influence of ukiyo-e continuing in a new generation of students.

"One of the reasons I started working with ukiyo-e is it allowed me a vehicle to mix elements of Japanese popular culture that have been adopted by Americans, youths in particular, like anime, manga and whole-body tattoos," says 49-year-old Hahn, whose image of a geisha a la Edvard Munch's "The Scream" was used for a 1996 cover of the Asian edition of Time magazine. "As a teacher, I've had kids coming in covered head-to-toe in beautiful work by Hokusai, and I find that very inspiring."


`Reflections of Beauty'

Women From Japan's Floating World

Where: Pacific Asia Museum, 46 N. Los Robles Ave., Pasadena

When: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesdays, Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays; 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Fridays

Ends: June 18

Price: $7; $5, students and seniors; free for children younger than 12

Info: (626) 449-2742,


What: "Images of the Floating World in Contemporary Art" panel discussion

When: 2 to 4 p.m. Saturday

Price: Free with admission

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