Japanese Paintings Delve Into Decadent Era

Photo: HARMONIOUS. 'Three Women Playing Musical Instruments' is at the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco until May.
HARMONIOUS. 'Three Women Playing Musical Instruments' is at the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco until May.

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The Japanese term "ukiyo," meaning "floating world," originated in Buddhist philosophy, where it signified the transience of all earthly existence. During the Edo period (1603 to 1868), denizens of the country's prosperous cities appropriated the word to describe the world of kabuki theater, geisha and courtesans, restaurants and teahouses-an urban wonderland of color, costume and sex. Alongside this new culture a new art developed, known as "ukiyo-e" (meaning, simply, "pictures of the floating world").

Woodblock prints, thanks to their portability, relative abundance and early arrival in the West, have long been virtually synonymous with ukiyo-e. To this day, the term is as much a designation of medium as style or subject matter. Rarer and more fragile ukiyo-e paintings, by contrast, tend to linger in museum vaults, unseen and mostly unknown.

That's a shame. "Drama and Desire: Japanese Paintings from the Floating World 16901850," an exhibition on display at the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco until May 4, gathers 80 works from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, which possesses perhaps the world's finest collection of ukiyo-e painting. The subjects are familiar from prints: pretty girls and actors, with a few historical or mythological scenes for contrast. Familiar, too, is the dominant mood: an attitude of aestheticized hedonism, punctured by humor and not without an occasional note of melancholy.

The quality of work is astonishing. Every painting rewards close observation; the best could sustain a lifetime of looking. (As, presumably, they were intended to.) Among the best is a hanging scroll depicting a woman looking into a mirror, by Katsushika Hokusai (of "The Great Wave Off Kanagawa"). Her gray dress is in itself a wonder of detail and design. Another gem is Hishikawa Sori's picture of a courtesan whose feathered robe melts from her body in graceful, agitated lines.

Less subtle are theatrical posters by Torii Kiyomitsu and his school-dynamic compositions bursting with saturated reds and straining limbs. (These works are exceedingly rare, since most were thrown away after the play's run.) Also on display are highly explicit erotic handscrolls, which stand a notch below the best in the gallery. Needless to say, they exert a certain appeal of their own.

The light-sensitive nature of these paintings severely limits how long and how often they can be displayed. Many haven't been on view for a century. After the show ends, it's back to storage. See them while you can.

"On Gold Mountain: Sculptures from the Sierra," an installation by contemporary Chinese artist Zhan Wang also on display through May, is a lesser exhibition with its own charms. Zhan's best-known works are stainless-steel simulacra of traditional Chinese scholars' stones, of which several are on view here. The main event, however, is a scale model of San Francisco constructed entirely out of shiny Chinese steel cookware. Topographically, the work isn't precisely accurate, but it features enough recognizable landmarks to make the resemblance convincing.

The work's title refers to the Chinese name for San Francisco, while the stones (both real and steel) around the sides of the gallery were gathered from California's gold country. The work is billed as a response to the city's Chinese-American history. What exactly saucepans and salad tongs have to do with the immigrant experience is best left to the individual spectator to puzzle out, but the general effect is pleasant enough. Recommendation: Take a look, find the Transamerica Building, then head back to "Drama and Desire."

Take Daniel's recommendation at [email protected]

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