"In the beginning, woman was the sun." As the Japanese writer Hiratsuka Raicho noted in 1911, the origin and symbol of Japan is the sun-goddess. This eternally rising glory was perhaps incarnated in early Japanese history by powerful empresses, priestesses and female poets. Japan's greatest writer, the medieval novelist Murasaki Shikibu, was a woman whose genius combined Shakespearean might with Proustian refinement. Such a fusion of might and refinement characterizes much of the best of Japanese art and life. For swaggering machismo may tremble and weep with poetic sensitivity and female obedience be a treasure-house of steadfast integrity and courageous sincerity. Both swords and cherry blossoms are sacred emblems of fateful purity. Flower and sword: Which is purer? Which is stronger? All is duty - all passes like dew.
And yet, for centuries, Japanese women became increasingly limited in freedom and confined to a "world within walls," as feudal political structures were consolidated until their collapse in the late nineteenth century. The sun-goddess essence of Japanese women - despite their ritual of obedience - continued to shine out in their poetry and prose and style. But, for many women and men, life could be described as a theater of intricate etiquette regulated by lofty males devoted to a severely magnificent warrior-code hammered out of elements of Shinto, Buddhism, and Neo-Confucianism. Shame and pride and self-sacrifice became a beautifully dangerous pattern, a sometimes lethal ballet. Are we talking here about art or life? The distinction is not always clear in Japanese culture - or in the splendidly tricky color woodblock prints which racily encode the intrinsic melodrama of rank and gender.
With cynicism, commercial canniness, and sincere poetry, the great color woodblock artists of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries both exploited and identified with women. They celebrated and advertised "the floating world," the world of Kabuki theater and the pleasure district (especially in Edo, the capital, now Tokyo). In this world, where alone women were "powerful," the illusions of life, art, and love fused together. Men and women clashed across an abyss of yearning. Love, being frowned upon in the outside world, could find an ironic refuge among the high-class cultured courtesans whose lives often inspired the violent romanticism of the stage. Only in the alluring lies of theater and bordello could women become glorified in crime or goodness and only there could commoners be honored like samurai. There, outcasts - actors, courtesans, and artists - could be worshipped like Buddhas. Pariah-hood became a kind of purity. Poetry was the only language. Chicness and wit were admired more than rank - but not more than money.
Only there, could lovers, like samurai, achieve the suicidal sublime - and actual love-suicides, quickly recorded on stage and by woodblock prints, were common. (This happened when pretend love between courtesan and customer was replaced by real love, which had nowhere to go.) Role-reversal was the norm in "the floating world," as courtesans became noble through self-sacrifice and weak males cringed before the necessity of love. On the stage, males took on women's roles (though Kabuki was founded by a woman). Such men were seductive to both sexes. On stage and in expensive bordellos and in woodblock prints, there was a complexly tender and violent play of identity. Men and women traded identities with historical figures - or falsely denied such parody. Parody was all. Courtesans and customers tried to re-create the divine perfume of the medieval Heian court, in an age when aristocracy was becoming bankrupt in every way - and money was becoming more powerful than rank.
Although woodblock prints recorded or pretended to record elements of legend, history, and local scene, the focus was often on "the floating world," especially in regard to the relationship between men and women. Was "the floating world" noble or sordid? It was influential throughout Japan and influenced the West through its influence on Western artists. Intense maleness and intense femaleness resulted in endless rituals of play and parody, in a culture where play meant art, sex, and metaphor. The very dichotomy of male and female gender-roles resulted in gracefully desperate and elegantly vulgar attempts to both dramatize and nullify that dichotomy. The abyss between men and women was perhaps ultimately accepted with stylized fatality; but at least high fashion was created.
The eerie apartness of men and women has never been more obsessively,
heroically recognized than in
the color woodblock prints of Utagawa Kunisada, Utagawa Kuniyoshi, and
the brilliantly tormented
late nineteenth-century genius, Tsukioka Yoshitoshi. The exalted anguish
of these printmakers is
a revealing contrast to the serene elegance of an earlier printmaker like
Kitagawa Utamaro. And
then there is the delightful and informative lustiness of Katsukawa
Shunsen. In these printmakers -
as well as others in this exhibition - the demonic and the tender are
played out to the bittersweet
end. But the madly vital play of men and women will never end.