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Art Review

MFA's 'Drama and Desire' explores pleasure principle in Japan

The dancer has fly-away, blood-red hair, and her chalk-white face is fixed in a rapt, mask-like expression. Her layered robes, a riot of color and pattern, swirl about her body as she performs the Lion Dance. Raising a blossom-laden peony branch in one hand and pointing another down with the other like a semaphore signaler, she is a miracle of dynamic rhythm and graceful poise.

This arresting figure, painted on silk by Katsukawa Shunsho in the late 1780s, vividly embodies the erotically charged spirit of "Drama and Desire: Japanese Paintings From the Floating World, 1690-1850," a gorgeous exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts.

The show's 83 works were all drawn from the MFA's collection of some 700, said by scholars to be one of the world's largest and finest collections of ukiyo-e style paintings. It was assembled by William Sturgis Bigelow, a Harvard-educated doctor who lived in Japan and who donated it to the MFA in the late 19th century.

Organized by MFA curator of Japanese art Anne Nishimura Morse, the exhibition is now on the sixth stop of a tour that took it to three cities in Japan as well as to the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth and the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto. In February it will travel to the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco.

Ukiyo-e, which means "pictures of the floating world," is most commonly associated with popular, richly colored woodblock prints representing landscapes and town scenes by such masters as Hiroshige and Utamaro, works whose formal qualities famously influenced painters such as Claude Monet and Vincent van Gogh. What is less widely known is that all the major ukiyo-e artists were painters first and foremost. Their paintings have a richness of detail and complexity that the prints lack, but like the prints, with their flattened, sharply outlined forms and bold colors, they assert a visually catchy, cartoon-like quality from which modern poster makers and comic book artists have learned a great deal.

The term "ukiyo" refers to life and the pursuit of pleasure in districts of Edo (modern-day Tokyo) and other Japanese cities reserved for Kabuki theaters, teahouses, and brothels: floating worlds of fantasy and entertainment set apart from the grueling reality of life under the feudal rule of Japan's samurai overlords.

Unlike Western red-light districts such as Boston's erstwhile Combat Zone, the floating worlds of Japan were not tacky, dirty, or nasty. Prostitution was legal and not considered immoral. Far from being looked down upon, high-class courtesans were idolized by commoners, like today's movie stars. A night with one of them would cost more than $8,000, according to the show's catalog.

In the MFA's ukiyo-e paintings, Edo's pleasure district appears a place of peace, order, and gentility. The Japanese sex industry may have had its hidden seamy side, but ukiyo-e is not an art of social realism. The paintings project moods of epicurean delight in all kinds of sensual and sensory experience, including the craft and aesthetics of painting itself. Some of the most captivating parts of many paintings in the show are in their peripheral details - depictions of domestic furnishings and decorative objects that are like miniature, tenderly realized still lifes within the larger scenes.

An expansive, two-part folding screen - each section measuring almost 12 feet wide - greets visitors at the start of the show. Made in the late 17th century by Hishikawa Moronobu, "Scenes From the Nakamura Kabuki Theater and the Yoshiwara Pleasure Quarter" offers a bird's-eye view. Visible through openings in lustrous, gold-leafed clouds, dozens of little men and women are dispersed inside and outside airy, rambling architectural structures. High-ranking courtesans promenade with their retainers on their way to appointments with wealthy clients, while lower-level prostitutes await customers in open, street-side buildings. A line of elegantly gesturing dancers performs on a spacious stage before attentive spectators.

There is an air of busyness and tranquility. It is all so civilized, you might suppose you were viewing scenes from a utopian religious community if you didn't know the actual hedonistic subject matter.

"Drama and Desire" includes paintings of male Kabuki actors strutting their macho stuff, but the show's most numerous and most entrancing works are hanging scroll paintings that display idealized images of female prostitutes and geishas. Whether strolling along urban boulevards, relaxing under leafy trees in pastoral settings, or featured in parodic versions of classic myths, they are invariably resplendently garbed in multilayered robes bearing intricately wrought patterns.

It might seem curious that none of the paintings are of nudes. The cult of the classically proportioned body that European artists inherited from the ancient Greeks had no currency in Japan. But ukiyo-e artists were far from puritanical. Most of them made a good part of their livings from the production of "shunga": scroll paintings explicitly depicting people engaging in sexual intercourse - typically with genitals appearing much enlarged and engorged.

The MFA show includes three shunga handscrolls. In them, sex seems a sinless, guilt-free, everyday pleasure. In an early 18th-century scroll by Torii Kiyonobu, simplified cartoonish couples make love in the midst of colorfully patterned robes whose billowing forms echo their amorous exertions.

In Chobunsai Eishi's finely detailed pictures of lovers in luxuriously appointed rooms, also from the early 18th century, close examination of several scenes discovers that the artist added a sly note of realism by painting a transparent glaze - made sparkly by the addition of crushed mica - over the lovers' genitals so that they appear to be glistening.

The marriage of form and feeling is what accounts for the mysterious power of the show's most compelling works. In a large hanging scroll painting from 1805 by Katsushika Hokusai, a woman stands with her back to the viewer wearing a gray robe - bound by a wide red sash - that falls in sinuous curves to the floor. She adjusts her hair with one hand while gazing down into a hand mirror with a lacquered, floral-patterned frame propped up in the open drawer of a cosmetic case on the floor.

In the mirror, you see her whole face, an enigmatic mask of grief, it seems. Between her front teeth she holds a small piece of fruit - a ground-cherry, which was believed to control hysteria. Perhaps she is upset about the letter she has crumpled in one hand.

Painted with exacting, linear precision in black, white, and shades of gray and brick red on a field of bare, beige silk, it is a composition of extraordinary elegance and graphic economy. Its appeal to modern eyes raised on comic books and Pop Art is irresistible.

As in many other ukiyo-e works, there is a wistful, melancholy feeling. The floating world is an elusive, fleeting realm where few if any people can stay for long. Sooner or later, sadly or not, reality always has a way of bringing each of us down to earth.

Ken Johnson can be reached at

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Drama and Desire: Japanese Paintings From the Floating World 1690-1850

At: Museum of Fine Arts, Torf Gallery, through Dec. 16. 617-267-9300,