Women of the pleasure quarters: a Japanese painted screen

29 August – 3 November 2013
Free, Room 3

The Asahi Shimbun Display

This beautiful large-scale painted screen evokes the world of pleasure and entertainment created for men in Japan of the Edo period (1600-1868). During this time almost every aspect of daily life was regulated by a military government promoting duty and hard work, but the ‘floating world’ (ukiyo) of the brothel and theatre districts presented a more seductive message – surrender to the pleasures of the moment.

The message of the ‘floating world’ became a central theme of city life and culture, particularly during the relatively liberal 1780s, when the screen was painted. Combining evidence from popular prints and specialised guidebooks, this exhibition offers insights into the culture, etiquette, and sexual economy of the so-called ‘pleasure quarters’ (yūkaku) of the period. The screen depicts five high-ranking courtesans (oiran), or female sex workers, seated on a red carpet and accompanied by four pairs of ‘trainees’ (shinzō) dressed in matching robes with long hanging sleeves. The women are presenting themselves to attract clients in a display room (harimise) at Kado-Tamaya, a brothel within Yoshiwara – the most famous brothel district of Edo (modern-day Tokyo). Their faces are idealised, rather than portraits, and are done in the style of Utagawa Toyoharu (1735–1814), who is thought to be the painter of the screen.

Yoshiwara was designed for the entertainment of bureaucrats and wealthy merchants seeking to escape the burdens of officialdom and military regulation. Surrounded by a wall and moat – and locked at night – the quarter functioned as a city within a city. Its permanent residents included several thousand courtesans, alongside many other brothel and teahouse employees, both men and women. Visitors included men of all ranks, among them soldiers and officials (samurai), who were required to leave their long swords at the gate. When the screen was made Yoshiwara was also a meeting place for Edo’s cultural elite. A girl typically entered the quarter between the ages of 10 to 15 as a child servant, usually after being sold by her impoverished family. While the relatives received a lump sum, the daughter was generally contracted for ten years. During this time she would receive training in polite arts, ranging from calligraphy and the performance of the traditional tea ceremony, to flower arranging and poetry. Musically, her studies usually focused on the three-stringed shamisen, the main instrument of the pleasure quarters. In her mid-teens she would become a trainee sex worker, joining the courtesans in the display room. Through good looks, charm and accomplishments, a courtesan could earn a high reputation, not only within her brothel, but throughout Yoshiwara.

The most prestigious courtesan names (myōseki) were handed down to successive well-regarded courtesans. One such was Komurasaki, who appears in the screen. She is identifiable by the crane with outstretched wings decorating a small lacquer box, located near her at the front of the scene. Komurasaki’s bird emblem is also shown in a picture album, and her name features in a Yoshiwara guide published in 1783, about the time the screen was painted. Apart from these few tantalising facts, however, nothing is known of her personal life. This is generally true for other famous Yoshiwara courtesans too. In reality, a courtesan’s life could be fraught with difficulties, such as maintaining a steady clientele, and physical hardships including malnutrition, venereal disease and unplanned pregnancy.

Today the art of the ‘floating world’ is known mostly through woodblock prints and hanging scrolls. This is one of only a few surviving screens to depict the subject. As a work of art, this screen offers important insights into the Edo period, one of the most fascinating and complex periods in Japanese history.

This display will partly coincide with the exhibition, Shunga: sex and pleasure in Japanese art which opens 3 October in Rooms 90-91

Notes to editors

Opening hours 10.00-17.30 Saturday to Thursday, 10.00-20.30 Fridays.

The Asahi Shimbun Displays are a series of regularly changing displays which look at objects in new or different ways. Sometimes the display highlights a well-known item, sometimes it surprises the audience with extraordinary items from times and cultures that may not be very familiar. This is also an opportunity for the Museum to learn how it can improve its larger exhibitions and permanent gallery displays. These displays have been made possible by the generous sponsorship of The Asahi Shimbun Company, who are long standing supporters of the British Museum. With a circulation of about 8 million for the morning edition alone, The Asahi Shimbun is the most prestigious newspaper in Japan. The company also publishes magazines and books, and provides a substantial information service on the Internet. The Asahi Shimbun Company has a century long tradition of staging exhibitions in Japan of art, culture and history from around the world.

For further information

Please contact the Press Office on 020 7323 8583 / 8394 or communications@britishmuseum.org

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For public information please visit britishmuseum.org or call 020 7323 8181

Follow updates on the exhibition via Twitter on #ShungaExhibition and the Museum’s Twitter account @britishmuseum

Shunga: sex and pleasure in Japanese art

3 October 2013 – 5 January 2014
Rooms 90-91, admission charge
Tickets will go on sale 1 September 2013

Supported by Shunga in Japan LLP
Part of Japan400

Parental guidance advised for visitors under 16 years

In early modern Japan, 1600-1900, thousands of sexually explicit works of art were produced, known as ‘spring pictures’ (shunga). This exhibition, the first of its kind in the UK, examines the often tender, funny, beautiful and undoubtedly accomplished shunga that were produced by some of the masters of Japanese art, including Utamaro and Hokusai. The exhibition is drawn from collections in the UK, Japan, Europe and USA and will feature some 170 works including paintings, sets of prints and illustrated books with text.

The exhibition will be accompanied by a public programme of lectures and events.

The international research project has been funded by a generous grant from the Leverhulme Trust, involving a wide network of more than thirty scholars worldwide.

The four principal institutional research partners are: The British Museum; School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London; International Research Center for Japanese Studies (Nichibunken), Kyoto; Art Research Center, Ritsumeikan University, Kyoto.

Admission charge £7, tickets can be booked online at britishmuseum.org or 020 7323 8181. Opening hours 10.00–17.30 Saturday to Thursday and 10.00–20.30 Fridays.

In conjunction with the exhibition, British Museum Press will publish a catalogue with contributions from more than thirty authors worldwide. Lavishly illustrated, this volume will feature new research and previously unpublished material from major public and private collections. Priced £50 (hardback), will be available from the British Museum Book Shop and online at britishmuseum.org

Courtesans of the Tamaya House. Detail from a screen painting attributed to Utagawa Toyoharu (1735–1815). Japan, late 1770s or early 1780s.