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Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec
B. 11.24.1864 Albi, France / D. 9.9.1901 Malromé, France

"Enchanted Evenings" Courtesans and poets, actors and painters, patrons and procurers. . .long before Le Moulin Rouge had cast its spell over a century or so of Western dreamers, the ukiyo—or “floating world”—of Japan’s Edo period (1615-1868) was capturing imaginations in the East. In the theatrical districts and officially-sanctioned pleasure quarters of great cities such as Kyoto, Nagasaki, and Edo (Toyko), a glamorous performing class, enveloped in intrigue, danger, and heartbreak, pursued amusements of fabled sophistication. So compelling was the myth (if not the reality) of life in the ukiyo, that by the 19th century an entire school of painting had emerged, devoted solely to its charms. Among the masters of ukiyo-e were the great landscape artists Hokusai (1760-1849) and Hiroshige (1797-1858), who celebrated the demi-monde and the pleasures it took in parks, gardens, tea houses, and sight-seeing tours.

The Floating World Revealed: Ukiyo-e Paintings and Prints is a rotating selection of 50 works which depict Edo period actors and courtesans engaged in some of their favorite pastimes: reading, chatting, strolling outdoors, composing poetry, and savoring the elaborate aesthetics of the tea ceremony. Tea in the Floating World follows the latter activity into back-stage Kabuki theater lounges and luxurious houses of assignation. Here, merchants and dignitaries rubbed elbows with an era’s most flamboyant talents and most notorious sexual outlaws, and refreshed themselves from delicate cups, pots, and tea paraphernalia custom-made for the ukiyo. Inhale the bouquet from November 24 – May 26, while both exhibitions are on view at the Freer Gallery of Art.

Written today for Museums Washington, Fall/Holiday 2002.

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