Geishas of the Floating World

"Courtesans of the Ogiya Brothel", circa 1800
by Chobunsai Eishi
the term "geisha" denoted an entertainer who could not legally engage in sex with her clients. But in actual fact many did. Also, the highest-ranking licensed prostitutes were as refined as true geishas and emulated them. The term "geisha" is used herein to apply to both.
Japanese prostitutes who lived centuries ago were central to the development of Western art, and continue to exert tremendous influence today.

In the early 1600s, the rulers of Japan legalized prostitution in numerous red-light districts called "Yoshiwara". The most celebrated of these was located in Edo, now known as the city of Tokyo.

Sensual pleasures abounded within the Yoshiwara. Thousands of prostitutes worked in simple cribs and ordinary brothels, but the most famed were the thoroughly educated, impeccably mannered, exquisitely beautiful geishas who inhabited teahouses, lavish sitting rooms, and high-class brothels. Rivaled only by the hetairae of ancient Greece, geishas were the ultimate companions; they wrote poetry, played instruments, sang, made scintillating conversation, and even challenged guests in games of Go. They boosted their renown by parading through the Yoshiwara in their most glorious kimonos--and by hiring artists to create advertising posters.

Thus was born the art of Ukiyo-E, which means "images of the floating world"--the world of the Yoshiwara, of infinite delight. Artists who traveled to the Yoshiwara to seek models and employment developed a unique style of color woodblock prints. These prints featured an appealing simplity of line, broad flat colors, and alluring flowing grace. Some were sold or posted openly, complete with the artist's signature and a Kiwame seal--the censor's stamp of approval. Others, depicting explicit sex acts, were anonymous creations peddled furtively in back rooms. All are collector's items today.

"The Courtesan Nakagawa
of the Matsubaya Teahouse", 1796?
by Chobunsai Eishi
When the emperor wrested control of Japan from the shogun in 1867, Ukiyo-E fell into disfavor and vanished under the new regime. But by that time, American Commodore Matthew C. Perry's show of naval force had opened the ports of Japan to trade. Ukiyo-E prints flooded Europe, and were instrumental in the development of Western art, especially Impressionism and Art Nouveau.

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec's style and themes were inspired by the series Twelve Hours in a House of Ill Repute by Kitagawa Utamaro (1750-1806). Vincent Van Gogh admitted to his brother Theo that he envied the clarity of Japanese art. He even copied his The Courtesan from a geisha by Keisai Eisen (1790-1848). Among Mary Cassatt's many works influenced by Ukiyo-E is a color print based on an Utamaro poster advertising a geisha named Hinatsuru. Paul Gauguin eliminated shadows from his work because he observed that they were rarely included in Ukiyo-E. Other famous artists inspired by the Ukiyo-E style include Edgar Degas, Claude Monet, Patrick Nagel, Alberto Vargas, and Alphonse Mucha.

Even misinterpretations of Ukiyo-E had their effects. Toulouse-Lautrec based his own HTL-in-a-circle signature on the Japanese censors' Kiwame seal, which he believed to be the artist's signature. The familiar C-in-a-circle copyright logo probably also derives from the Kiwame seal. And many of the Ukiyo-E prints Europeans believed to be complete were actually fragments of larger multi-page works. Impressionist artists, impressed by the "innovative" cut-off figures at the edges of these prints, deliberately created similar effects (e.g., the customer on the right in Edouard Manet's "Nana").

In biology, the term "hybrid vigor" refers to the tendency of hybrids to be greater in size, strength, and stamina than their parents. Today, with the meeting of Eastern and Western cultures, the new floating world is our planet Earth. And thanks in part to geishas who lived centuries ago, it is a hybrid greater than its parent countries.

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