Animals in the Pleasure District: A Japanese Print

The Yoshiwara, the designated pleasure district of Edo (modern-day Tokyo), was one of the most popular subjects of ukiyo-e prints, or “pictures of the floating world.” While the Yoshiwara served as a backdrop for many types of prints, it came to be most closely associated with the genre of bijinga, traditionally translated as “pictures of beauties.” Though bijinga featured women from all walks of life, the courtesans of the Yoshiwara were undoubtedly the most admired.

Creators of bijinga depicted a glittering world of great beauty and refinement, purposefully ignoring the deplorable conditions of a sex trade based on indentured servitude. Just as the Yoshiwara itself offered an alluring yet ultimately false ideal of passion and romance, ukiyo-e constructed a fantasy world endowed with sophistication and grace. The true situation—far less lovely—was subtly and cleverly communicated in some designs through the inclusion of various animals whose symbolism tells a tale that is far different from the picturesque world of bijinga.

This aspect is perhaps hinted at in a print in the Mead Art Museum’s collection by Totoya Hokkei, a surimono (a privately commissioned print) that employs lavish and complicated printing techniques, somewhat at odds with the disheartening reality it reflects.

Totoya Hokkei (Japanese 1780–1850). A Treasure Assembly: Sazō Looks Out for the Jewel That Shines in the Night ('Takare awase sazō ban yakō tama'), 1830s. Woodblock print. Gift of William Green, AC 1990.36

Totoya Hokkei (Japanese 1780–1850). A Treasure Assembly: Sazō Looks Out for the Jewel That Shines in the Night (‘Takare awase sazō ban yakō tama’), 1830s. Woodblock print. Gift of William Green, AC 1990.36 (Click on image to enlarge)

Because they were working on private commission, printers and illustrators of surimono were not subject to the sumptuary laws of popular publications; the resulting high quality is quite obvious in this print, with its gleaming mica in the figures’ robes and careful embossing throughout the illustration. Yet despite these ornate features and the elaborate beauty of the courtesan’s kimono, one of the two dogs at lower left appears to be dirty and plagued by fleas. Here, perhaps, is a rare representation of the realities of the Yoshiwara that are completely hidden in other prints—the venereal diseases many male customers brought with them into the district. The pure white dog undoubtedly represents the courtesan—courtesans were well known for their white makeup—and the scratching dog, with its impish expression, seems to reflect the man, Sazo, who has approached her. Their furtive glances and steps do not communicate any great love or passion, as was common in the romanticized stories and art of the Yoshiwara.

The incompatibility of reality and art is, in many prints, tempered on occasion by such discrete symbolism. The decision many designers made to include a wide range of animals—from the smallest dragonfly to the most powerful dragon—became more than just a means to show the advancements made in textiles and printmaking. Even as they decorate both the courtesan and the print, these animals can carefully and cleverly reveal the realities of the Yoshiwara.

On view at the Mead in the exhibition Nature, Pleasure, Myth: Animals in the Art of Japan, February 7–June 28, 2015

Written by Siyu Shen, Class of 2015

Views of Washington, DC: Jacob Kainen’s Residential Facades

The mid-twentieth-century painting Residential Facades by American artist Jacob Kainen uses dynamic, contrasting colors and eccentric architectural forms to communicate a sense of life. The Mead acquired this painting in the summer of 2014, a gift of the Jacob Kainen Art Trust. Today, which would have been Kainen’s 105th birthday (December 7, 1909–March 19, 2001), we look briefly at the artist’s life, and at three Residential Facades inspired by the architecture of Washington, DC.

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Jacob Kainen (American 1909–2001), Residential Facades, 1948. Oil on linen. Gift of the Jacob Kainen Art Trust, AC 2014.113

An ominous gray cloud seeps in from the outer edges of the Mead’s Residential Facades (1948), and dense blue-green bushes threaten to overrun the townhouses. These intimidating elements are held back by the clear blue sky that swells above the rooftops and the white and yellow houses that seem to protect whoever may be in the house.

The houses themselves, Victorian row houses that Kainen observed and sketched on his daily walk to the Smithsonian in Washington, DC, where he worked as curator in the Division of Graphic Arts, angle up and out in unnatural ways, lending an air of surrealism to the painting.

Combining realistic representation with abstract forms was typical of Kainen’s constantly evolving artistic style. He began his career as a painter in New York, where he was mentored by the modern artist Arshile Gorky. Kainen’s interest in architecture probably grew out of the long walks he and Gorky took around New York almost every day together in the 1930s, while Gorky commented on the “predatory” architecture of the buildings (Berman 24).

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Jacob Kainen (American 1909–2001), Residential Facade, 1949. Etching. Gift of the Jacob Kainen Art Trust, AC 2014.118

Kainen’s decision to leave the vibrant and developing art scene of New York in 1942 for what started out as a temporary position as an aide in the Smithsonian Museum in Washington turned out to be life changing. His tremendous work ethic and capacity for knowledge about art eventually led to a permanent position and enabled him to thrive in his professional life outside the museum as an artist, teacher, scholar, and mentor.

The Smithsonian Museum of American Art has an extensive collection of Kainen’s work, including another view of Washington row houses completed in 1949, also titled Residential Facades. This painting, while clearly influenced by the same type of Washington architecture as the Mead’s Residential Facades, evokes different feelings through color and style. George Hemphill, who was a friend of the artist and owns an art gallery in Washington, says that Kainen described to him “how ‘emotional’ his response to the architecture of Washington was.” This insight establishes that the artist’s interpretation of buildings goes beyond superficial observation in both Residential Facades.

Jacob Kainen (American, 1909–2001). Residential Facades, 1949. Gouache on paper. Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Christopher and Alexandra Middendorf, 1991.7.8

Jacob Kainen (American, 1909–2001), Residential Facades, 1949. Gouache on paper. Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Christopher and Alexandra Middendorf, 1991.7.8

The cheerful yellow, orange, and red hues and the flat, two-dimensional facades in the Smithsonian’s version contrast with the darker greens and blues, and sense of depth, in the Mead’s. Although both paintings feature turrets and decorative windows, and focus on architectural forms, the Mead’s Residential Facades expresses deeper, more intense emotion than the lively row of pink, red, and orange.

Because he had struggled to find employment as a young man in New York during the Depression, working off and on for the WPA (Works Progress Administration) in the Division of Graphic Arts, Kainen felt inspired to use his artwork to bring attention to the problems and uncertainties people inevitably face in life. One of the turrets in Residential Facades (1948) seems to sway in the wind, while chimneystacks and sharp edges interrupt the blue sky above the house. Although there are no people in the painting, Kainen still conveys the uncertainty and fear many feel, which gives the somewhat fantastical houses a purpose. In this way, Residential Facades (1948) is not just a painting meant to show off Washington’s architecture, but a fulfillment of Kainen’s desire to make art that would “give off an aura of human experience” (Berman 21).

Image Sources: 1/2

Agee, William C., and Avis Berman. Jacob Kainen. Edited by Walter Hopps. Washington, DC: National Museum of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, 1993.

Written by Catherine Rose O’Brien, Class of 2017

 

Where the Wind Comes Sweeping Down the Plain: Monet in Oklahoma

May in Tulsa, Oklahoma. The temperatures were in the 80s, but the wind was so vigorous and dry that it felt much cooler. My mission was to observe the uncrating and hanging of the Mead’s precious Monet painting, Morning on the Seine, Giverny, which is part of an exciting exhibition called Monet and the Seine: Impressions of a River at the Philbrook Museum of Art, Tulsa, and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.

Claude Monet (French 1840-1926), Morning on the Seine, Giverny (Matinée sur la Seine), 1897, oil on canvas ,Bequest of Miss Susan Dwight Bliss ,AC 1966.48

Claude Monet (French 1840–1926), Morning on the Seine, Giverny (Matinée sur la Seine), 1897. Bequest of Miss Susan Dwight Bliss, AC 1966.48

I arrived in the morning with the courier from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. We were among the first to have our paintings placed on the wall. Usually a courier doesn’t get to see the finished product. But this time, I watched while staff at the Philbrook carefully unpacked the painting and installed it masterfully in no time.

The MFA Boston Monet was hung next to the Mead’s. I was quite impressed with the space separating the paintings, so impressed that I wrote down the measurements: 4 feet,  6 inches. This seemed genius to me. No doubt there would be crowds, and each painting is given almost 9 feet of linear wall space to allow for a moment of singular contemplation.

The Mead's Monet awaits installation at the Phillbrook alongside the MFA Boston Monet.

The Mead’s Monet (right) alongside the MFA Boston’s Morning on the Seine, Giverny, 1897. Gift of Mrs. W. Scott Fitz, 11.1261

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The two Mornings on the Seine from 1897, reunited in the exhibition Monet and the Seine: Impressions of a River.

 

Some background about the exhibition might be enlightening. The exhibition at the Philbrook specifically focused on Monet’s Mornings on the Seine series. This group of 28 paintings had been exhibited only once before — by Monet in June of 1898. Although the original exhibition was critically acclaimed, the Mornings series was never shown together again. Thanks to the Philbrook and the MFA Houston, 16 of the original masterpieces from all over the world were brought together once again.

The Philbrook Museum of Art in Tulsa, Oklahoma

The Philbrook Museum of Art in Tulsa, Oklahoma

After our Monet was safe and secure on the wall, I was able to tour the Philbrook.  I had no idea that such a gem existed in Tulsa. Do not pass up a chance to visit this art museum. The spectacular gardens aside, they have strong European, American, and Native American collections. I fell in love with three paintings.

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Vittore Carpaccio (Venetian, 1465–1526), St. Stephen, ca. 1505–1514. Gift of the Samuel H. Kress Foundation, 1961.9.13

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Vittore Carpaccio’s St. Stephen, from ca. 1514. I love the rocks glued to his head and shoulder (see detail).

Thomas Moran (American, 1837-1926), Grand Canyon, 1907

Thomas Moran (American, 1837–1926), Grand Canyon, 1907. Gift of Laura A. Clubb, 1947.8.26

Thomas Moran’s awesome Grand Canyon from 1907. He left no color off the canvas.

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Byam Shaw (British, 1872–1919), Beatrice, ca. 1905. Gift of Laura A. Clubb, 1947.8.6

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And Beatrice, ca. 1905, by Byam Shaw. No photo I could take would do this Pre-Raphaelite–inspired painting justice. For me, the actual mother of pearl, gold, gesso, and beads that decorate the surface are entrancing, but the architectural frame won me over from fifty feet away.

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Vittore Carpaccio (Venetian, ca. 1465–1526), St. Peter Martyr of Verona, ca. 1505–1514. Gift of the Samuel H. Kress Foundation, 1961.9.11

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An honorable mention was the companion painting to St. Stephen: Carpaccio’s St. Peter Martyr of Verona (ca. 1505–1514). How could anyone not appreciate the skillful placement of daggers, the symbol of his martyrdom?

Written by Stephen Fisher, collections manager at the Mead Art Museum.