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6 June - 9 August 1998 National Gallery of Australia Canberra

Courtesan with umbrella
Utagawa Kuniyasu Edo 1794–1832 Courtesan with umbrella c.1820s  National Gallery of Australia

The National Gallery of Australia presents for the first time in Australia a major exhibition of the art of Edo period Japan (1600-1868). Beauty and Desire: Women in Edo Period Japan features woodblock prints, paintings and kimonos dating from the 17th century to the late 19th century. Through these spectacular works, Gary Hickey, curator of Asian Art at the National Gallery of Australia, has evoked the lively and often lascivious environment which gave rise to the well-known Japanese art of  ukiyo-e.

By the early 18th century the city of Edo (now Tokyo) was the capital of Japan; once a small fishing village, it had become the most populous city in the world. The Edo period was characterised by almost 250 years of uninterrupted peace and relative isolation from the outside world. These factors contributed to the rise in wealth of a merchant class, chonin, who had no political power. Their aspirations and desires were expressed in a lively and carefree urban culture. To represent their new aesthetic, the Edo townsmen borrowed the ancient Buddhist term ukiyo. It originally meant the impermanence of life, but was used to denote a `floating world' unfettered by daily concerns.

The philosophy of ukiyo added a certain poignancy to life - it intensified the beauty of the transient cherry blossom, the summer call of the cricket or the fleeting beauty of a young woman. This attitude was conducive to a life where pleasures were enjoyed in a relaxed fashion.

The chonin culture revolved around the entertainment areas of Edo - the Yoshiwara brothel district and the Kabuki theatres. Obsessed with the ideal of feminine beauty, townsmen looked to their artists to express these desires through the depiction of beautiful women dressed in the height of fashion. Sex became the new religion of the chonin and their goddess the courtesan of the Yoshiwara. Her beauty was extolled in literature, art and theatre. Unencumbered by the centuries of tradition that distinguished the orthodox schools of painting, the artists of the Edo period could reflect this new taste.

New egalitarian ideals demanded a more accessible art, so the ancient technique of woodblock printing was revived. Courtesans, sporting outrageous hair styles and dressed in the latest kimono designs, represented the height of Edo aesthetic taste. Parading in festivals, parodied in the theatre by the female impersonators, or depicted in erotic works, these women became the main subject matter for the ukiyo-e artists.

Beauty and Desire explores the image of woman as an aesthetic ideal through some 100 works by more than 35 artists. All the major figures of ukiyo-e are represented including Hokusai, Hiroshige, Utamaro, Sharaku, Moronobu, Harunobu, Kiyonaga, Kuniyoshi and Yoshitoshi. This is the first exhibition to draw together major collections of Edo period art in Australian collections as well as selected ukiyo-e masterpieces and kimonos from Japanese and American collections.