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Frame by Frame

An intimate scene from Tokyo not as idyllic as it appears

Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

At once a brutish town dominated by men and a beautiful garden metropolis where the arts flourished, 18th-century Tokyo, or Edo, was so full of contradictions that it tends to defeat the modern Western mind’s attempts to plumb it. A sort of shared fantasy is the result, shaped and buttressed by the period’s intimate and elegant art.

This painted scroll, by the virtually unknown Kawashima Shigenobu, was recently put on display at the Museum of Fine Arts. It is characteristic of all that beguiles us about Ukiyo-e, or Floating World art.

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It shows a woman sipping sake as she and her male friend snuggle next to a “kotatsu” — a low table covered with a decorated futon or blanket for warmth. As they discuss calligraphy and, presumably, play footsie under the blanket, a child attendant watches on.

Lest we fall for the notion that Kawashima, a follower of the influential Nishikawa Sukenobu, has depicted a lovely domestic idyll, it should be borne in mind that the woman is a courtesan and the man her client.

In a city still ruled by shoguns, where men made up over 63 percent of the population, courtesans played a central and, in many particulars, a privileged role. Sex slaves, who were usually forced into prostitution at a young age, they could nonetheless, if they were lucky, achieve high status and a certain level of control.

Clients were expected to entertain and bring benefits to courtesans — including loyalty — that went beyond money, and encompassed a whole way of life. Leading courtesans were treated as heroines akin to today’s movie stars, and held in higher regard than most married women.

Attitudes toward sex in 18th-century Japan — it goes without saying — were less inhibited than in the Christian West. And prostitution itself, although carefully monitored by the government, was not considered immoral.

Courtesans found themselves at the center of a sort of alternative society — a “floating world” — dedicated not just to sex but to sophisticated pleasures, including theater, music, and poetry. The result was a fictionalized version of reality geared exclusively toward pleasure.

Ukiyo-e artists were deeply involved in cultivating this fiction, which depended upon, even as it ignored, many more sordid realities. Kawashima’s painting is so enchanting partly because of its doll’s house, fiction-within-fiction quality.

The prime fiction — of an unhurriedly erotic life of cozy domestic pleasure — is enhanced by artful reinforcements on the walls behind. On the left hangs a scroll painting of a glamorous courtesan, while over on the right is a screen with a painting of birds cavorting over frothing waves.

The composition is filled with details and competing patterns, and with sinuous curves set against severe perpendiculars. But it breathes easily, and promises — however falsely — a similar possibility for those who view it.

Sebastian Smee can be reached at ssmee@
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