The use of trees, flowers and festivals as subjects in Japanese prints of the Edo period (1615-1867) more than any other subject matter, reflected the realities, ambitions, aspirations, and tastes of the time. The pleasures of festivals, grand events, and entertainment, as well as the expansive landscapes depicted in woodblock prints, allowed people to “escape” the hustle and bustle of everyday life in Edo (modern day Tokyo). Flowers and Festivals: Four Seasons in Japanese Prints (January 22 through August 28, 2011) at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston celebrates the popular subjects of flowers and festivals as they appear in this medium.
Ukiyo-e or “images of the floating world” woodblock prints depict commoners, specifically those living in urban centers and the red light district. Prints served as advertisements highlighting the latest trends in travel, the women of the red light district, local cuisine and other hedonistic pursuits. In their own time, these prints were not meant to be great works of art, but rather, items that anyone could own and dispose of at their own discretion.
In Buddhism, the term ukiyo-e was used to describe the impermanence of the world humans lived in, the ever changing nature of everything that is around us. In the Edo period, this term took on a life of its own and referred to the world of the pleasure district “a quarter of the city which houses courtesans, their attendants, and the theaters, where Kabuki plays and Bunraku performances were presented” (Penelope Mason, History of Japanese Art, 278).
Changes in the four seasons, small or drastic did not go unnoticed for printmakers in Edo. Works by the artists in the exhibition capture the subtleties of the transition between seasons, from the delicate structure of plum blossoms to the bright golden color of maple leaves in autumn. Starting clockwise, we embark on a delightful journey, with a print of a warbler perched on a red plum branch alongside prints of plum and cherry trees in full bloom. The changes in the seasons unfold before our eyes as one wanders from print to print.
Among the most fascinating prints on view are those by Suzuki Harunobu, known for being one of the first artists to create polychrome prints and Utagawa Hiroshige I (1797-1858), Utagawa Hiroshige II (Shegenobu, 1826-1869) Kitagawa Utamaro I, Torii Kiyonaga and Hokusai among others.
Suzuki Harunobu’s prints are richly textured and highly sophisticated due to their incredible colors and details. Throughout his artistic career, Harunobu attempted to depict well known beautiful women of his time, but since ukiyo-e artists were not allowed to depict respectable, well known ladies, most were subject to censorship. This explains the shift from depicting women to prints that emphasized the landscapes of Edo and its surrounding towns. A pioneer in landscape prints, Katsushika Hokusai laid the ground work for what eventually became a phenomenon among commoners; the purchasing of prints as travel mementos.
Peonies at Hundred Flower Garden in Tokyo 1866, Utagawa Hiroshige II. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. William Sturgis Bigelow Collection
Memorable woodblock prints in the exhibition include Hiroshige’s Plum Garden of Kameido 1856-58, later copied by Van Gogh in Flowering Plum Tree and Hiroshige’s II Peonies at Hundred Flower Garden in Tokyo, 1866 from the series Thirty-six Selected Flowers. The Museum of Fine Arts has the finest, oldest and largest collection of Japanese art outside of Japan. The prints in Flowers and Festivals: Four Seasons in Japanese Prints are just a few dozen out of thousands in the museum’s vast holding.