By Joe Ferguson
Sex is one of those rare topics that even scientists deem taboo. For instance, in 1851 Gynecologist James Platt White was expelled from the American Medical Association for inviting medical students to observe a consenting woman in labor and delivery. At the time it was considered inappropriate for men to view female genitalia. The release of Alfred Kinsey’s Sexual Behavior in the Human Male in 1948 caused shock and outrage because it challenged conventional beliefs about sexuality, particularly sexual orientation. When Masters and Johnson published Human Sexual Response in 1966, the university which had housed their research disavowed any knowledge of what had been going on and expressed deep concern over the findings.
However, the interest in human sexuality and eroticism has been around for centuries and crosses all cultures and peoples. San Francisco’s Asian Art Museum’s exhibition Seduction: Japan’s Floating World discerns 17th century human sexuality by transporting viewers to the popular red-light districts in Edo—present-day Tokyo.
More than 60 artworks including rare paintings, woodblock prints, and kimonos are on view. At a time when most aspects of the samurais’ and townsmen’s lives were subject to strict social hierarchies and regulations, the floating world (brothel) provided a brief respite. Floating world, or ukiyo, originated from the common Buddhist phrase referring to the suffering of the physical world, which was inverted to mean a realm of boundless indulgence.
Seduction is not a study of human sexuality, but it does touch on questions that we still ask today. What is normal sexual behavior? What is deviant or perverted? Should government dictate what takes place between consenting adults? Should religion influence what we do in bed? Though we now have academic programs dedicated to understanding human sexual behavior, it is important to remember that sophisticated investigations into this area have existed for centuries, and we can benefit from understanding what came before us.
The exhibition kicked off on February 19th with a 4-hour evening of performance art, burlesque, haiku, sake tastings, and music. The press received a Seduction Party Advisory for the “bold and bawdy event” that promised an evening of experience at the “intersection of art and desire.”
The centerpiece of the exhibit is a 58-foot-long handscroll painting by 17th-century artist Hishikawa Moronubu. The scroll stretches the length of a gallery, and consists of 15 scenes and 400 figures detailing the street life and activities inside various brothels of the Yoshiwara quarter—the only licensed red-light district of Edo. As a nod to the social hierarchy of the time, the scroll culminates with a scene from a lavishly decorated house of assignation--ageya—where wealthy samurai were entertained by highly-skilled courtesans. I was prepared to be impressed by the scroll, but I was amazed by the size and detail of the depictions. Swarms of people surrounded the impressive piece, and for those who wanted a deeper level of involvement, the Asian Art Museum had created an iPad app that allowed visitors a way to view the details more closely and give them time to reflect.
The exhibition continues with an intimate portrayal of the lives of the prostitutes of Yoshiwara. While a very small minority of courtesans led relatively comfortable lives with expensive clothes and access to teachers, most were not so fortunate. Many started their lives as girls from impoverished, rural homes, and were taken to the quarter at age 7 or 8. Sex workers were subject to daily quotas. Unwanted pregnancies and venereal disease were endemic.
Highly-ranked prostitutes received training in music, calligraphy, poetry and other refined arts. These elite courtesans were admired for their beauty and style and were the subjects of literature, paintings, and many woodblock prints. Not surprisingly, many artists glossed over the more exploitive and tragic realities of the time, in favor of artfully-constructed fantasies.
In addition to paintings and prints, there are period books such as Mirror of the Yoshiwara. The book contains commentaries from the 28 top-ranked courtesans of the pleasure quarter. One of my favorite passages was from Sanya of the Saburōemon brothel, Kyōmachi. When a gentleman asks, “…do you fake it sometimes?” Sanya responds, “It is true that a courtesan is willing to sexually entertain any man with whom she shares her pillow. However, these acts of entertainment necessarily require a little faking.”
The exhibit concludes with the portrait Hell Courtesan by Utagawa Kuniyoshi. This legendary 15th-century prostitute was guided to enlightenment by a Zen monk and wears an impressive kimono depicting various scenes of hell, reminding viewers of the Buddhist concept of ukiyo--suffering prompted by desire.
Seduction: Japan’s Floating World runs through May 10th
Open Hours Tuesday - Sunday, 10 a.m. - 5 p.m.
General Admission $15
Asian Art Musem
200 Larkin St
San Francisco, CA