An artist’s fantasy or the real world?

This 19th-century Japanese screen of the Floating World depicts Tokyo’s notorious pleasure district, but it’s probably all imagined

This delightful, dancing picture at Harvard Art Museums depicts the entrance to the so-called Floating World, otherwise known as the New Yoshiwara, the licensed pleasure district on the edge of Edo (now Tokyo). How happy and fashionable everyone appears! Under blossoming cherry trees — a signature motif in Floating World pictures — scores of statuesque courtesans parade about in sumptuous garb, flanked by smaller members of their entourage. In many cases, the subtle inclination of their heads continues the bow-like sweep of their lower kimonos, lending the picture a lovely ebb and flow that’s beautifully amplified by the sinuously swaying trunks of the trees.

Zoom in and you can see broad smiles on the faces of those coming through the Great Gate, at right. Some are deliverymen, others are elegantly dressed pleasure seekers. Up above, in private rooms with large windows, the revelry is in full swing.

Of course, a pleasure district is one thing; an artist’s picture of a pleasure district is quite another. “How vain painting is,” wrote the philosopher Blaise Pascal, “exciting our admiration by its resemblance to things we do not even admire in the original.” But of course, not all painters are trying to make their pictures resemble a real-world original. Instead they paint from their imaginations.

The artist who painted this two-panel folding screen was Katsukawa Shunko II (1762-c.1830), also known as Katsukawa Shunsen (he changed his name several times, as was common among Japanese artists). He mostly designed books and woodblock prints. He must have spent months working on this painting, which includes more than 60 individuated figures and a controlled delirium of distinctive patterns. Its portrayal of prostitution is as far removed from Edgar Degas’ late-19th-century brothel monotypes as it’s possible to imagine.

In his book on erotic images in Japan between 1700 and 1820, the scholar Timon Screech described the Floating World, or ukiyo, as a “state of mind.” The Floating World was the “cognitive condition of being apart from the ‘fixed’ world of daily life and duty,” he explained. True, this imagined place had real-world equivalents, by far the most famous of which was Edo’s New Yoshiwara (the old Yoshiwara burned down in 1657). But pleasure districts, wrote Screech, “were then brought back into the domestic world of duty via the medium of pictures.” And those pictures were largely fantasies.

Even when they weren’t sexually explicit, ukiyo-e (“pictures of the Floating World”) were intended to titillate. Japan and the West had different sexual mores, but Japan’s culture was not particularly licentious or permissive. In fact, the Yoshiwara district was established by the Tokugawa shogunate in the early 17th century precisely to limit, isolate and control the bawdier activities of the newly thriving merchant classes. The district developed and changed as Japanese society changed, and over time it came to play a major role in the imaginations of the rising middle class. Besides conjuring the excitement of an entertainment district where the usual roles don’t apply, pictures of the Floating World also came to represent — as those cherry blossoms suggest — life’s transience.

Celebration at the Entrance of the New Yoshiwara, early 19th century
Katsukawa Shunko II (b. 1762). At Harvard Art Museums.

Great Works, In Focus

A series featuring art critic Sebastian Smee’s favorite works in permanent collections around the United States. “They are things that move me. Part of the fun is trying to figure out why.”

Photo editing and research by Kelsey Ables. Design and development by Joanne Lee, Leo Dominguez and Junne Alcantara.

End of carousel
Sebastian Smee is a Pulitzer Prize-winning art critic at The Washington Post and the author of “The Art of Rivalry: Four Friendships, Betrayals and Breakthroughs in Modern Art." He has worked at the Boston Globe, and in London and Sydney for the Daily Telegraph (U.K.), the Guardian, the Spectator, and the Sydney Morning Herald.