Living only for the moment, turning our full attention to the pleasures of the moon, sun, the cherry blossoms and the maple leaves, singing songs, drinking wine, and diverting ourselves just in floating, floating, caring not a whit for the pauperism staring us in the face, refusing to be disheartened, like a gourd floating along with the river current: this is what we call the floating world, 'ukiyo'. This 17th-century Japanese writer is describing a remarkable phenomenon. Ukiyo-e are paintings and prints of 'the floating world' of Edo (Tokyo), which had transformed itself in just a century from a swampy village to a metropolis of about a million people - then one of the largest cities in the world. Ukiyo was a state of mind as well as a world of pleasure-seeking, promising release from the restraints imposed on urban life in a highly regulated society. The pleasure districts of old Edo included the kabuki theatre as well as luxury shops, where the work of screen painters and lacquer craftsmen was on display. Through the eyes of Utamaro and other artists, we can see beautiful women on the street, in upper rooms and brothels - beauties of the teahouses, courtesans and prostitutes. Through the eyes of Hokusai and Hiroshige we see nature, sea and landscape, from the famous Great Wave to Mount Fuji in all its splendour. The British Museum has one of the world's outstanding collections of Japanese arts, particularly from this period. This book offers a special glimpse of a vanished world that is still fresh and visually rewarding to modern eyes.
British Museum Press
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