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Art and Society: Inside the Floating World

Hood Quarterly, spring 2003
Allen Hockley, Associate Professor of Art History, Dartmouth College, and curator of the exhibition

The ukiyo or floating world refers to the entertainment districts of Edo (now Tokyo) and the lifestyles and sensibilities they engendered. Taking glamorous courtesans and famous actors as their primary subjects, Japanese print artists of the eighteenth century developed a popular visual culture that explored the floating world’s intricate nuances in a medium that was highly sophisticated but relatively inexpensive.

The medium would outlast its favorite subject: by the early nineteenth century print artists turned their attention to landscape and warrior images, also widely popular and therefore ideally suited for prints. With humor, insight, and a vast knowledge of historical and contemporary fashion and social mores, these artists captured the imagination of a highly diversified clientele and created in the process one of the world’s most vibrant popular arts.

Inside the Floating World: Japanese Prints from the Lenoir C. Wright Collection brings to the Hood Museum of Art an exceptional collection of Japanese prints. Drawn from the Weatherspoon Art Museum, the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, this exhibition explores the tremendous breadth of floating-world imagery and the Japanese print tradition through examples dating from the early 1700s to the late 1800s. The exhibition represents all of the major print genres and showcases the talents of the print tradition’s most famous artists, including Harunobu, Utamaro, Hokusai, and Hiroshige.

Kabuki actor prints and bijinga (images of women), the floating-world mainstays of the print tradition, comprise roughly half of the works. Warrior prints, landscapes, and images of children, however, demonstrate the versatility of print artists and their ability to cultivate the passions and predilections of a wide audience. This exhibition also includes several surimono: the jewel-like qualities of these exquisitely designed and luxuriously produced prints emphatically reveal the exceptional skills Japanese printmakers brought to their art.

An extensive website featuring prints from the Hood’s collection supplements and enhances many of the subjects and themes explored in the exhibition.

This exhibition is organized by the Weatherspoon Art Museum, The University of North Carolina at Greensboro. Its presentation at the Hood Museum of Art is generously supported by the Marie-Louise and Samuel R. Rosenthal Fund and The Hansen Family Fund.

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