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"The Floating World Revealed" and "Tea in the Floating World"

Media only: Brenda Kean Tabor: 202.357.4880 ext. 319
Barbara Kram: 202.357.4880 ext. 219
Public only: 202.357.2700
Media preview: Tuesday, November 5 at 9 a.m. Call 202.357.4880 ext. 218 to attend.

With the opening of two new exhibitions on Dec. 8, the Smithsonian's Freer Gallery of Art joins the neighboring Arthur M. Sackler Gallery in presenting artwork associated with the theater districts and licensed pleasure quarters—the centers of the "ukiyo" (the floating world of transient pleasures)—of Japan's major cities during the Edo period (1615–1868). Timed to coincide with the installation of an entirely new rotation of woodblock prints in the "Masterful Illusions: Japanese Prints from the Anne van Biema Collection" exhibition at the Sackler, the Freer's "The Floating World Revealed: Ukiyo-e Paintings and Prints" and the small "Tea in the Floating World" exhibitions are both on view through May 26, 2003.

The Floating World Revealed

Shown in two parts, this exhibition features 15 paintings and 32 prints depicting famous Kabuki actors, courtesans and theatrical scenes, as well as a ceramic figure and a lacquer box. Of particular note are works by Kitagawa Utamaro (1753?–1806), Sharaku (flourished 1794–1795), Katsushika Hokusai (1760–1849) and Utagawa Hiroshige (1797–1858).

Kabuki theater originated at the beginning of the 17th century and by the 18th century had become an important musical theatrical entertainment in the thriving cities of Edo (now Tokyo), Osaka and Kyoto. The exclusively male cast of actors in these highly stylized performances, were instantly recognizable to their audiences. Though officially censored and controlled, Kabuki plays were attended by a broad cross section of the population, including wealthy merchants and samurai, who also patronized the high-class brothels of the licensed pleasure quarters.

Printed woodblock pictures first appeared in Japan as book illustrations in the mid 17th century. The commercial production of hundreds of impressions of single-sheet prints picturing famous Kabuki superstars in full costume subsequently became a popular subject matter for woodblock print artists who also designed prints of courtesans that were produced by skilled carvers and printers. Some prints were issued in series, which were collected first in Japan and later in the West. Pasted to walls, scrolls or screens, or collected in albums, few have survived. Works on view include:

  • two prints by Sharaku, whose dramatic portraits of actors, focusing on the head and torso, are among the most famous images in the history of Japanese prints
  • a painting—considered one of the finest surviving works of Torii Kiyonobu I (1664–1729)—depicting a scene from a Kabuki play
  • several works by Utamaro including a masterpiece painting, "Moonlight Revelry at Dozo Sagami," and three prints

During the 19th century, ukiyo-e expanded to include landscapes, enabling town dwellers to recall the beauties of the countryside. On view here are:

  • two prints by Hokusai from his famous series "36 Views of Mount Fuji"
  • two triptychs by Hiroshige, "Straight of Naruto in Awa Province"—one of three triptych landscape designs published the year he died (1858); and "Mountains and Rivers along the Kisokaido"
  • an exceptionally fine impression of Hiroshige's "Geese Descending at Katata" from his series "Eight Views of Omi Province"

Tea in the Floating World

Although modern concepts of the tea ceremony bring to mind a stylized and austere ritual, the tea ceremony was also a standard form of hospitality and entertainment in high-class brothels and the dressing rooms of Kabuki theaters during the Edo period. This one-room exhibition features decorative luxury tea utensils that might have been used by sophisticated high-ranking courtesans as they prepared tea for a favored customer.

The Freer Gallery of Art (12th Street and Independence Avenue S.W.) and the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery (1050 Independence Ave. S.W.) together form the national museum of Asian art for the United States. The Freer also houses a major collection of late 19th and early 20th-century American art. Hours are from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. every day except Christmas Day, Dec. 25, and admission is free. Public tours are offered daily. The galleries are located near the Smithsonian Metrorail station on the Blue and Orange lines. For more information, the public may call 202.357.2700 or TTY 202.357.1729, or visit the galleries' Web site at

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