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Life in Edo | Japanese Ukiyo-e Woodblock Prints at ACM

Whew, this post on Asian Civilisations Museum’s extensive exhibition Life in Edo has been a long time coming! I first visited in May this year, and a second time in July when there was a second rotation of prints. I loved seeing so many exemplary works of ukiyo-e woodblock prints and paintings from Japan’s Edo period (1603–1868) and seeing these pictures of daily life in old Edo (Tokyo today).

I spent some time in my undergraduate days studying art in Japan and ukiyo-e prints (and the topic of Japanese art was definitely very popular among Hong Kong students), but never had the chance to see them in person before. So Life in Edo was a real treat for me being able to view so many of them at one go, and by many masters of the genre too!

Utagawa Toyokuni I, The peak of Mount Fuji and the procession of beauties, c. 1810

My favourite artwork is probably this opening print from the first rotation, which seems to encapsulate the best of ukiyo-e prints: a picture of Mount Fuji and beautiful women.

While this exhibition has closed in October, I still wanted to share my highlights from the two rotations! This (very long) post is split into two parts with images from the first and second rotations respectively. For easier reference, the images are also sectioned according to Travel, Beauty, Pets, Food, Gardens, Seasonal Festivals, and Paintings (roughly following the curatorial direction of the exhibition).

My main impression coming out of this exhibition is that I was quite surprised by how modern Edo life was! Although Edo Japan (also known as the Tokugawa period) is thought of as belonging to a traditional, feudal Japan before the modernisation of the succeeding Meiji period, I feel that these images show a developed society steeped in its own culture and customs — which is so fascinating. While Edo period (1603–1868) ran for a pretty long time, all of the prints and paintings shown below come from the 19th century. I’m sure that I’ve mentioned this on the blog before, but the 19th century remains my favourite period to look at in art history, and it’s very interesting to me to see how people from different cultures lived life then!

Part I: Travel

Utagawa Hiroshige, View of Ōi River, Collection of Rivers on the Tōkaidō Road, c. 1851

What a way to travel — A daimyo (feudal lord) sits safely inside his palanquin in the distance, though the women also get impeccable service with bearers literally ferrying them across the river.

Utagawa Hiroshige, Hot spring by the river in Hakone, Collection of Rivers on the Tōkaidō Road, c. 1851

Part I: Beauty

Beauty in Edo

This part is really interesting, showing women making themselves up. There were also a few surprising standards of beauty, for example, according to the exhibition didactic, women blackened their teeth to indicate she was an adult or married, and women shaved their eyebrows after giving birth to her first child. You can see both examples in the prints above!

Part I: Pets (Lots of cats!)

Utagawa Hiroshige, Asakusa ricefields and Torinomachi Festival, One Hundred Famous Views of Edo, 1857

So the Japanese love for cats goes way back! I love this print by Hiroshige showing a cat in a brothel (belonging to a courtesan) staring out the window at the festivities outside.

Keisai Eisen, Young woman holding a cat, c. 1843–46
Utagawa Kunimaru, Women in summer, c. 1811–14
Utagawa Kunisada, aka Toyokuni III, Woman playing with a cat, Fabrics to Order in Current Taste, c. 1844

I should also mention here that I loved seeing all the intricate designs of the kimonos and clothing in Edo Japan — so gorgeous and creative! Some of the prints belong to a series, and this one comes from a series titled ‘Fabrics to Order in Current Taste’, which clearly shows the importance of being fashionable at the time.

Utagawa Kunisada II, Courtesan in Matsui-chō, A Collection of Modern Beauties, 1855
Utagawa Kuniyoshi x Utagawa Torijo (aka Yoshitorijo), Wanting to pull down the back collar of kimono to show her nape: Eel from the Sunomata River in Tōtōmi province, Auspicious Desires on Land and Sea, 1852
Utagawa Kunimaru, Woman holding a Japanese Chin, 1818–30
Utagawa Toyokuni I, Hydrangeas, Six Selected Flowers, c. 1810

I wasn’t expecting that dogs were popular among the Japanese, but the Japanese Chin was a popular pet! The two prints above Woman holding a Japanese Chin and Hydrangeas show a woman similarly posed with her pet dog in hand.

Kitagawa Hidemaro, Young couple with goldfish, 1804–18

Goldfish were yet another popular pet to keep and admire in their glass containers, as seen here.

Utagawa Yoshitoyo, Giant elephant imported from overseas, 1862

This giant Indian elephant was placed on show for many of the Japanese public to see for the first time, and which must been very fascinating for them at the point of time to see an ‘exotic’ animal. I’m assuming that the printmaker Yoshitoyo must have actually seen this elephant for himself, since the didactic states that he made a few prints of the elephant… See Dürer’s Rhinoceros (1515) for an alternative case in point!

Utagawa Kunisada, aka Toyokuni III, The Third Month, Five Festivals, early 1830s

Part I: Food

Utagawa Kunisada, aka Toyokuni III, The Tenth Month: Streetwalkers in the First Snowfall, c. 1815–18

I love this picture of the first snowfall, where women gather at this soba peddler’s stall for a bowl of cosy hot soba. I also love the detail of the women’s dainty umbrellas / parasols — I’m sure there’s a correct term for this but I’ve no idea…

Tsukioka Yoshitoshi, Looks delicious: Appearance of a courtesan in the Kaei period, Thirty-Two Aspects of Women, 1888

Part I: Gardens & Seasonal Festivals

Utagawa Kuniyoshi, Earth: Tokonatsu, Comparisons for the Five Elements, c. 1851–52
Utagawa Kunisada, aka Toyokuni III, Enjoying the Doll Festival, 1861

The Doll Festival (Hinamatsuri) was celebrated for the young girls in the household when the peach trees were in bloom! As the name suggests, dolls were displayed in the home as part of the festival, which you can also see in this print.

Part I: Paintings

Motohiro, Beauty and cat, 1830–44, ink and colour on paper scroll
Kikukawa Eizan, Child holding a dog, c. 1810, ink and colour on paper scroll

These ink paintings almost seem overlooked compared to the popular woodblock prints, but they are also made so gorgeously! They share similar subject matter with the prints — like images of women with their cats and dogs — but are much larger in scale, and the ink and colour are more finely rendered.

Part II: Travel

Utagawa Hiroshige, Shōno: Driving rain, Fifty-three Stations of the Tōkaidō Road, c. 1833

I would say that Hiroshige is simply masterful at depicting rain in prints. I don’t think that my camera very clearly captures the rain effect in this print, but even so, you can see those drifts of rain layered over the scenery.

Another famous, classic rainy work by Hiroshige is Sudden Shower over Shin-Ōhashi Bridge and Atake (1857), also from the series ‘One Hundred Famous Views of Edo’, view it here at the Met Museum. Another favourite artist of mine, Vincent van Gogh, was so inspired by Hiroshige’s print he made his own copy Bridge in the Rain (after Hiroshige) (1887), on view at the Van Gogh Museum. Actually, I must visit both the Met and the Van Gogh Museum! I just wonder when…

Utagawa Kunisada, aka Toyokuni III, Kuwana, Fifty-three Stations of the Tōkaidō Road, c. 1815
Utagawa Sadahide, Lord Mashiba Hisayoshi builds the Castle of Himeji in Harima province, 1862

Part II: Beauty

Kitagawa Utamaro II, Beautiful courtesans, like willows along the river, 1804–18
Utagawa Kuniyoshi, Woman with a razor, Women in Benkei-checked Fabrics, c. 1845

Part II: Women and Pets

Utagawa Kuniyoshi, Beauties with a cat by the goldfish pond, c. 1851
Utagawa Kuniyoshi, Lily, Elegant Selection of Six Flowers, c. 1843
Utagawa Kunimaru, In front of the bathhouse, 1818–30

I wonder about the choice of depicting these women In front of the bathhouse (the didactic didn’t explain this point), but this is yet another lovely image of women in their patterned kinomos carrying their umbrellas / parasols on a snowy day.

Utagawa Kunisada, aka Toyokuni III, Cherry blossoms at Genji’s Rokujō Mansion, 1854

This scene comes from ‘False Murasaki’s Rural Genji’, which was a parody of the Japanese classic ‘Tale of Genji’. To briefly summarise from the didactic, Prince Genji at the centre of the print is seen participating in a cherry blossom viewing festival (I like how there were whole festivals for this), while the Third Princess, later to be given in marriage to Genji, appears on her verandah on the right of the image with her cat on a leash. It’s all a parody — so some details have been altered from the original Tale.

Tsukioka Yoshitoshi, Looks annoyed: Appearance of girl in the Kansei era, Thirty-two Aspects of Women, 1888

I really like this print of a girl getting up close to her cat, because which pet owner hasn’t been crouched over playing with your pet before?

Kikukawa Eizen, Woman and her child looking at a goldfish bowl, 1804–18

This print has an interesting perspective of a mother carrying her son on her back (if you zoom in to see it in more detail).

Utagawa Kunisada, aka Toyokuni III, Mitsuuji and women enjoying a winding stream party, 1852
Utagawa Kunisada, aka Toyokuni III, Glass Dutch ship, imported birds, and glass lantern at the Craft Show, 1819

It’s so interesting how sometimes, these ukiyo-e prints don’t have a sense of ‘background’ with figures and objects appearing out of ‘nowhere’ on the print. This is a triptych that shows women in front of glass artworks at a handicraft show in Ryōgoku, Edo City, in 1819. From left, there is a glass model of a large hanging lantern, a display of live exotic birds, and on the most right — the most impressive to me — a glass model of a Dutch trading ship.

Utagawa Kunisada, aka Toyokuni III, View of Kanbara, Fifty-three Stations of the Tōkaidō Road, early 1830s
Utagawa Yoshikazu, Foreigners’ residence in Yokohama, 1861
Utagawa Yoshikazu, Foreigners enjoying a party, 1861

These two prints of foreigners in interior spaces were included near the Food/Gastronomy section of the second rotation. Although seemingly a bit random, these images of foreigners — specifically white foreigners — was of interest to the Japanese, especially as the Edo period was marked by 200 years of isolation from the rest of the world and the arrival of such foreigners was to lead to major changes ahead, i.e. the decline of the Tokugawa shogunate and the Meiji Restoration of 1868.

But before all that, artists like Yoshikazu made such “Yokohama prints”, so named as foreigners were restricted to living in the port city of Yokohama at the time. Foreigners’ residence in Yokohama depicts an imaginary scene; I’m not sure if Foreigners enjoying a party was taken from an actual scene. In any case, it’s interesting how the Japanese style of depicting people was applied to these Westerners!

Part II: Gardens

Utagawa Kuniyoshi, Chrysanthemums of 100 varieties grafted together, c. 1845
Utagawa Kunisada, aka Toyokuni III, Autumn: Actors (from right) Iwai Kumesaburō III, Ichikawa Danjūrō VIII, and Bandō Shūka I, Comparisons of Flowers of Four Seasons, 1853

Part II: Seasonal Festivals

Utagawa Kunisada II, Tanabata Festival, The Five Festivals Represented by Baicho Genji, 1858

I didn’t know that the Japanese also celebrated this, but the Tanabata Festival is the celebration of the reuniting of the Cowherd and Weaver Girl once a year on the Magpie Bridge based on Chinese folklore. It’s also the basis of the Chinese Qixi Festival, colloquially known as the Chinese Valentine’s Day. In Tanabata Festival, the figures write their wishes on paper strips to be hung on bamboo branches, which is still practiced today.

Utagawa Hiroshige, Fireworks at Ryōgoku, c. 1849–51
Utagawa Kunisada, aka Toyokuni III, The Twelfth Month: Making rice dumplings, Twelve Months, 1854

Making rice dumplings here is actually the making of mochi! Mochi is made in preparation for the (Japanese) New Year.

Utagawa Kunisada, aka Toyokuni III, Scene at low tide: Gathering shellfish, late 1820s

According to the didactic, viewing cherry blossoms and gathering shellfish were two popular activities for the Edo people in spring. I love how Edo people also appreciated their cherry blossoms even then!

Part II: Paintings

Utagawa Kunimune, Strolling shamisen player and woman at the face powder shop, 1830–44, ink and colour on paper scroll
Kouno Bairei, Parody of Onna San no Miya (The Third Princess, from the Tale of Genji), 1868–72, ink and colour on paper scroll

I love these two ink paintings in particular! The second painting Parody of Onna San no Miya seems quite sensual, but I love the detail of the clear screen in front of the woman, which the cat at her feet is playing with. The translucency of the screen is so well-painted — I always seem to have a thing for well-painted translucent layers of curtains / clothing / screens, which I have definitely mentioned in other exhibition reviews!

Test prints of Hokusai’s South Wind, Clear Sky

Ending off this exhibition review with these test prints of Hokusai’s all-too-familiar South Wind, Clear Sky, also known as Red Fuji, from the series Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji, c. 1830–32. See here the ‘completed’ version at the Met Museum.

Overall, I preferred the artworks in the first rotation to those in the second rotation. Either way, it was wonderful to see so many amazing works in one place. I’d recommend opening up these images and zooming in on the many details — especially the spectacular patterns of the clothing!

Life in Edo actually formed one half of the exhibition, the other half being Russel Wong in Kyoto featuring contemporary photographs of geiko in Kyoto — which I will also be sharing about separately!

If you would like to see more of the exhibition, check out ACM’s virtual gallery of the exhibition as well as a super cool digital experience of Utagawa Hiroshige’s Fifty-three Stations of the Tōkaidō Road.

Find the links to the virtual gallery and the digital experience below:

Life in Edo | Russel Wong in Kyoto, available until the end of the year, 31 December 2021.

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