Yoshiwara Courtesans

In Yoshiwara courtesans
were influenced by Zen,
whose masters were their greatest fans,
and proved that they were men
by interacting with them till
their legs fell off, which could
occur once they had helped to fill
desires we think should
be by the FBI controlled.
We let it cut off legs,
to make sure sex cannot be sold
except by wanton dregs,
disdaining courtesans whom Edo
esteemed above its geishas.
Controlling by the law libido
to me seems more salacious.

Inspired by a review of an exhibition of paintings from the Edo period,1680-1860, at the Asia Society reviewed by Karen Rosenberg in the NYT on March 14,2008 (“Diversions and Delights from the Floating World”) , which appears to be similar to one that Linda and I saw two days ago, guided by docent Gloria, at the San Francisco Museum of Oriental Art, loaned from the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, “Drama and Desire, ” We were there one day after the world learned that the Governor of New York, Elliot Spitzer, was Client number 9 in the Emperor Club, as revealed by law enforcement while erasing another prominent public figure’s career. It seems that the shoguns in Edo had a more enlightened view regarding sex than we in the occident today. Interestingly, the Edo paintings not exhibited for more than a hundred years after they were bought, because the shunga portion of the collection was considered too outrageous for western eyes. This portion of the collection was exhibited in the center of the exhibit, with warnings that the art might not be suitable for children.
A new exhibition at Asia Society, “Designed for Pleasure: The World of Edo Japan in Prints and Paintings,1680-1860, ” anchors the floating world firmly in economic and social reality. The show includes works by well-known artists, including Hokusai and Hiroshige, but also emphasizes the entrepreneurial role of print publishers and the relationship between printmaking, painting and literature in the Edo period. Because the prints are sensitive to light, “Designed for Pleasure” will be shown in two installments. Of the 148 works in the exhibition,95 are currently on view; about two-thirds of those will be rotated out on April 4. Many of the artists who produced ukiyo-e, traditionally seen as a lower form of culture, also made paintings for elite patrons. On display in the first gallery, Hishikawa Moronobu’s 55-foot hand-painted scroll, “A Visit to the Yoshiwara” (late-1680s) , is a floating world unto itself. Yoshiwara was the pleasure center of Edo, a place where the samurai could unwind among elegant, well-trained courtesans. The scroll’s 15 episodes (of which only a portion are visible here) include depictions of a tea ceremony, couples swaddled in luxurious bedding and satisfied clients settling up with the house. Moronobu is regarded as the founder of ukiyo-e, but the 18th-century artist Okumura Masanobu was the first of several aggressively self-promoting artist-printmakers. Masanobu took credit for innovations like the use of European one-point perspective, seen in a hand-colored woodcut from 1745 that shows a busy second-floor parlor in Yoshiwara. Masanobu’s paintings and prints also hint at the complexity of the courtesan’s social and spiritual roles in Edo Japan. One slang expression for courtesan was daruma, the name of the Zen master who meditated until his legs fell off; in Masanobu’s prints and others throughout the exhibition, prostitutes are shown interacting with Buddhist figures.


by gershon hepner

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