It is interesting to note that the flourishing of woodprint art during the Edo period is largely due to the patronage of the aristocratic class. Indeed, the “pleasure quarters and the sophisticated entertainments they offered exerted an enormous impact on the culture of the Edo period.” (http://www.metmuseum.org, 2003) In this light, it is a paradox that the Buddhist message of austerity and detachment was propagated in equal measure through the art form. For instance, one prominent feature of this Buddhist ethos is that of ukiyo, which stands for the transitory nature of life. Both the works in discussion exhibit this quality in terms of their impressions. Hence, the revelry of Japanese high society went hand in hand with the simplicity of Buddhist philosophy in shaping the rules and aesthetics of woodprint art. This contra-direction is exemplified in the upturning of the meaning of ukiyo from ‘transitory’ to that of ‘joie de vivre’. This
“hedonistic culture that glorified life in the ‘floating world’ was particularly well expressed in the production of woodblock prints, which made available to anyone with a bit of extra cash captivating images of seductive courtesans, exciting kabuki actors, and famous romantic vistas. For the first time, artists were inspired by and responded to the interests and preferences of the general public”. (http://www.metmuseum.org, 2004)
The print Two Ladies Looking Through a Telescope is a beautiful work from the woodblock tradition. Created by artist Hokusai during the 19th century, it has similarities to the Two Lovers painting, in that the feminine is portrayed as sensuous, delicate and demure. The fine attention given to the robes, accessories and other ornamentation is a treat to the eyes. The two women in the painting are most likely courtesans or entertainers living in their palatial abode. The use of the Telescope and its tilt downwards suggests their vantage position – both physically and socio-economically. The significance of the Telescope is that it is imported equipment from Western Europe. It indicates the cultural and commercial exchange that began to consolidate during the 19th century. It is only apt that this work of art is featured under ‘Japan Envisions the West’ gallery in the Settle Art Museum.
Again, what is common between the two works in discussion, as well as the larger body of woodblock prints is their utility as historical documents, depicting the lifestyles, social structures and dressing styles of various generations of Japanese. They also showcase the unique aspects of Japanese art, particularly with respect to the woodprint production technique, which was quite advanced compared to the evolvement of art production techniques in Europe.
Department of Asian Art. “Woodblock Prints in the Ukiyo-e Style”. InHeilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/ukiy/hd_ukiy.htm (October 2003)
Department of Asian Art. “Art of the Pleasure Quarters and the Ukiyo-e Style”. In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/plea/hd_plea.htm (October 2004)
Meech, Julia. “Early Collections of Japanese Prints and The Metropolitan Museum of Art.” Metropolitan Museum Journal, Vol. 17 (1982).
Priest, Alan. “An Aristocracy of Robes.” Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, New ser., v. 18, no. 4 (December, 1959)
“Suzuki Harunobu: Crow and Heron, or Young Lovers Walking Together under an Umbrella in a Snowstorm (JP2453). In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000 – http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/works-of-art/JP2453 (October 2006)