Geishas of the Floating World
"The Courtesan Yosooi
Writing a Letter to a Lover", early 1800s
from the series Six Poets of the Yoshiwara
by Kitagawa Utamaro
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.
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
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.
to "Painted Ladies"
to the Hooker Heroes table of Contents
to The World of the Wondersmith