A Journey to the Floating World | Ukiyo-e in Shanghai

Gentle hues and shadows forming twisted figures of individuals juxtaposed with the violence and diversity of nature. Waves and sunsets and mountains and sudden rain. All in a space complimenting the works, with patterns drawing to mind Zen gardens on the ground, more mountains and figures on the wall; all combining to reveal the floating world, Ukiyo-e.

Over 170 of these prints – “floating world pictures” to provide an adequate translation – are on display at the Zhongxi Center, right behind Exit 5 of Xujiahui Subway Station.

I was first introduced to Ukiyo-e while studying Asian art in college, starting with the Great Wave off Kanagawa, rising up with its white hand like appendages with Mount Fuji looking on from the background, observing as the small helpless vessels below the wave are about to be engulfed.

The colors, much more vibrant and alive than in the traditional Chinese paintings I had been studying, came out of an artistic movement that sought to depict the fantastical, mythical and sometimes wild world of the pleasure districts and upper classes of Edo, the new capital under the Tokugawa Shogunate, all as a means of depicting and escaping from the mundane reality of life in 17th Century Japan.

As the art form progressed, a common theme in Ukiyo-e became a body of water with a bridge and lonely figures walking along it, a motif sometimes featured as the centerpiece or part of a larger piece; a sort of bridge away from reality itself. While this was eventually replaced by other subjects like Kabuki actors, other scenes of nature and even myths, the pieces depicting bridges over water are the best remembered today.

The fantastic floating world was repeated in the exhibit itself. Walking out behind Xujiahui Station, there’s an office building with a coffee shop on the first floor and stairs leading to an upstairs gallery, with the Great Wave itself and other pieces leading the way to a realm of deep blues circumnavigated by white lines, circling the floor as if to form the current of a river.

Looking up from these gentle flowing currents, the first prints came into view. Landscapes and mountains, then the recognizable Sudden Shower over Shin-Ohashi Bridge and Atake by Utagawa Hiroshige, showing a bridge with wandering figures in a torrent of rain represented by thick strain lines rocketing towards the Earth, the background covered in thick fog with only the outline of the banks visible.

Such attention to detail, used to show the artist’s impression of a scene, may have been what the Impressionists found so interesting when they got ther first look at Ukiyo-e in Europe. Though only 2D, the craftsmen depicted depth and space with the use of lines and color to give the illusion of distance. One impressive example of this depiction was present in a print showing a procession of people moving slowly through a foggy town in the early morning, or another of farmers clutching to their hats and bundles, bracing against a strong wind with flying trees and mountains in the distance.

Deeper into the exhibit there are more landscapes, plus portraits of Kabuki actors in full attire and the aforementioned scenes from myths. All of this led up to the main event: 5 pieces by Hokusai, including the Great Wave. It’s more humble than expected as the prints themselves were quite small, but the impact was breathtaking.

Looking at the wave, as it’s about to engulf the boats of fishermen speeding below it, the viewer’s attention is drawn downward to Mount Fuji in the distance. Mirrored by a whitecap in the foreground, the volcano had never been deicted as a supporting actor in a piece before Hokusai began to experiment with it in his Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji series (of which the Great Wave is a part). This could be considered Hokusai’s rebellion, as it puts something of reverence in Japanese culture far away. Yet, it could also mean something more. Mount Fuji, in all its grandness and as depicted in Great Wave, isn’t so much an outlier as the main player. The scene going on in the foreground is chaos, whereas Mount Fuji represents peace and harmony. While both are part of the floating world, Mount Fuji could be considered the escape from the floating world.

It takes true art to generate contemplation and awe, and the prints here delivered. The brief trip into Ukiyo-e was an intriguing and peaceful excursion into Japanese art. Even in the gift shop the show continued, with books depicting modern Japanese works that were influenced by Ukiyo-e, from dystopian and horrific vistas and machines to cyberpunk cityscapes with their grand yet grungy appeal.

The floating world is an interesting place to visit, and leaves much room for contemplation and interpretation. Definitely worth a visit.


Masterpieces of Ukiyo-e

Date: Until January 6th, 10am-6pm
Entry: 68 RMB (Weekdays), 88 RMB (Weekends)
Address: Zhongxin Plaza, 2/F, Bldg A, 331 Caoxi Bei Lu

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