Of Floating Poets and Sorrowful Whores

“Echoes of Heian-Kyo” at the Boston MFA

by by Alex Verdolini

The art of juxtaposition is subtle, difficult to understand. Put two colors, scents, or images beside each other without further explanation, and nearly any effect can arise: harmony, discord, humor, or simply confusion—or other, stranger sensations without name. The best example may be renga, a collaborative poetry in which one poet writes the first stanza and another the second, and so on. The stanzas themselves are of no significance; the art lies in the relationships between them. If any stanza, no matter how beautiful, is of a self-sufficient beauty, then its author is missing the point.

"Echos of Heian-Kyo: Court Culture in the Floating World," showing through March at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, deals with a very specific sort of contrast. The woodblock prints in the exhibit all belong to the genre known as ukiyo-e: Pictures of the Floating World. This was the main style of printmaking from the seventeenth to the nineteenth century in Japan, and its themes are familiar—landscapes, history scenes, and the Floating World itself: the urban realm of pleasures, with its kabuki theater, its elegant prostitutes and costly courtesans. But these prints have a twist: they all incorporate references to the dignified court society of medieval Heian-Kyo, modern-day Kyoto—they set an age of aristocratic refinement alongside one of merchants, actors, and whores.

This juxtaposition is often achieved through poetry: commoners act out classical poems, the whose hover at the top of the images, ensconced in stylized clouds. In an eighteenth-century print by Isoda Kuryusai, Ban'ya no Yasuhide's most famous poem, "When it starts to blow, / the grasses and trees of fall / begin to wither; / that is why the mountain wind / is called a tempest," is accompanied by the image of two young women walking through autumnal woods. The taller one leans, inebriated, on her companion's shoulder; the wind agitates the maple leaves—and blows her robe suggestively. The effect is on one level comically lewd, but on another tender and ennobling. It doesn't deflate the classical poem so much as it sanctifies the tipsy teenager.

Other prints address the famous old poets directly—although the medievals rarely appear in the flesh. In "Ban'ya no Yasuhide," from Chobunsai Eishi's The Six Poetic Immortals in Fashionable Guise, the titular poet is missing from the frame—there's only a modern courtesan in a flowing robe. Her hand, reaching out from her sleeve’s scarlet lining, holds an old-fashioned nobleman's hat: the only sign of the eminent Yasuhide, who has apparently been for a visit. Another artist imagines Ono no Komachi, the lone poetess among the Six Immortals and a famous beauty, as a prostitute.  She kneels in the front room of a brothel, her robe slipping down from her shoulder, as a prospective customer speaks to her through the wooden latticework. Even in this context she retains a certain dignity; she and the room she sits in are printed in sumptuous color, while the man outside is in dim black-and-white. He is nearly a shade, secondary to the arresting poet-whore.


The terminology of Japanese art is one of its half-hidden pleasures: thanks to the Japanese language's relatively short supply of syllables, it is full of metaphors and multiple entendres. As it turns out, ukiyo—from which the genre ukiyo-e is derived—is a word of several meanings. It is, on the one hand, the Floating World: the world of delicate sensations, of splendid and elegant gestures that hang in the air. But it has a homonym: ukiyo also means the Sorrowful World, the humdrum earthly plane. In Buddhist discourse, it signifies the grinding cyclical existence from which we're trying to escape.

One of the show's most affecting prints, "Evening Faces," from the 1846 series Genji Clouds Matched to Ukiyo-e Pictures, juxtaposes a passage from The Tale of Genji with the image of a streetwalker in the falling snow. She stands on a street corner in a black kimono, red scarf, and wooden sandals. Tucked under her arm is a bamboo bedroll, echoing the extravagant scroll that takes up the top of the print. The passage on the scroll refers to one of Prince Genji's lovers, Yugao, whose name means Evening Faces--and the scroll itself, arabesqued in red and gold, is decorated with a kind of flower whose name is also Yugao.

The final evening face—the prostitute's—looks up toward the Genji text slyly and expectantly, as though she's in on something. Maybe she's waiting for a point in time when all the words are gone, when homonyms unbind and separate, like oil from water after a long traumatic shaking--when the Floating World, rising up into the ether, leaves the World of Sorrows behind.


“Echos of Heian-Kyo” is small, but tastefully, quietly curated: you don’t see the curator’s hand. The space belongs to the images. It’s good to see an exhibition like this, whose objective is to exhibit, not to argue or explain. Its logic is not explicit, but as you move from image to image, like a reader of renga stanzas, you begin to understand.

ALEX VERDOLINI B'11 sanctifies the tipsy teenager.