Asia Society Presents Major Exhibition of Japanese Woodblock Prints And Paintings

Designed For Pleasure: The World Of Edo Japan In Prints And Paintings, 1680-1860

February 27 - May 4, 2008

Designed for Pleasure: The World of Edo Japan in Prints and Paintings, 1680-1860 is a landmark exhibition of 140 masterworks of Japanese ukiyo-e, from commercially released prints of iconic images by artists such as Utamaro, Hokusai, and Hiroshige to privately commissioned prints and paintings created for the luxury market. The exhibition, co-organized by Asia Society and the Japanese Art Society of America, explores Japan's famous "floating world" of spectacle and entertainment. It is the first to examine paintings, prints, and illustrated books together in the context of the key personalities who helped to establish the floating-world genre: woodcut designers, painters, and publishers. The Japanese Art Society of America, which is celebrating its 35th anniversary, is guest curator of this exhibition.

"From luxury paintings of Edo's pleasure quarters to Hokusai's iconic 'Great Wave,' Designed for Pleasure illuminates this period's unique interplay between art and commerce, demonstrating how artists of this era, as well as the publishers and patrons who engaged them, not only mirrored the tastes of their times, they created a unifying cultural legacy," says Asia Society Museum Director Melissa Chiu. "Ukiyo-e was imaginative, innovative, and experimental; it continues to be popular and relevant today, and is thought to have influenced manga and anime."

"Designed for Pleasure challenges the view that ukiyo-e's focus on fashion and celebrity dilutes its legitimacy as high art," continues Allison Tolman, President of the Japanese Art Society of America. "The paintings, prints and books on view - many for the first time - explore the complex networks of artists, writers, publishers, and 'beautiful people' who in the floating world were able to cross rigid boundaries of social strata, gender, and age. On the occasion of our 35th anniversary, the Japanese Art Society of America is honored to work with Asia Society in presenting this historic endeavor."

The main artistic genre of woodblock prints and painting in Edo Japan, ukiyo-e ("pictures of the floating world") depicted the emerging culture and lifestyle in Japan that was defined by the pursuit of pleasure. By the early 18th century, Edo (modern Tokyo) was the largest city in the world with over one million inhabitants and was a magnet for literati, artists, craftsmen, entertainers, merchants, and others ministering to the needs of samurai and leisure classes. The exhibition aims to tell the cultural history of these two hundred years, when Japan was largely isolated from the outside world. The art shown in this exhibition reflects the sophisticated and witty taste of artists and patrons who were conversant with classical Japanese poetry and literature, the art and culture of China, and even the latest imports from the West including spyglasses, clocks, engravings, and paints.

Though it was the prints that first captured the attention of the Western world, they were almost always the work of artists who thought of themselves primarily as painters. Some artists gave up designing prints in favor of painting once their reputations were established. The ukiyo-e artist combined three roles: painter, print designer, and book illustrator. Ukiyo-e prints originated with single-color works; later prints were handcolored with a brush until 18th-century innovations enabled polychrome printing. The exhibition examines the role of the studio, the role of artists as entrepreneurs, and the role of the publisher. Social and technological advances unique to these times are also explored, including marketing to the public and innovations in printing.

Designed for Pleasure is organized into seven sections, each examining a key figure or master of ukiyo-e. Exhibition sections are devoted to Hishikawa Moronobu as the acknowledged father of ukiyo-e; Okumura Masanobu as a versatile and innovative artist who introduced new formats, compositional techniques, coloring methods, and subject matter to satisfy the demand for novelty from mass audiences; and Suzuki Harunobu and the development of full-color printing (before full-color printing emerged in 1765, woodblock prints were generally produced with only two or three colors).

The exhibition includes sections on Katsukawa Shunsho as creator of sumptuous paintings of contemporary beauties and famous actors for elite patrons; Tsutaya Juzaburo as publisher, tastemaker, and impresario, illustrating the important role of the publisher in identifying talented artists and coordinating and promoting their activities; Katsushika Hokusai and his circle as creators of privately commissioned paintings and surimono prints - woodcuts with poetry - illustrating the close connection between literary circles and artists; and Hiroshige, Kuniyoshi, Kunisada, and others, exploring the relationship between ukiyo-e artists and the emerging marketplace of material culture and consumerism.

The exhibition represents the finest of ukiyo-e held by major museums in the United States, including the Art Institute of Chicago, the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, the Brooklyn Museum, the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Seattle Art Museum as well as by many important private collectors, primarily members of the Japanese Art Society of America. The exhibition also includes five works - three prints and two porcelains - from Asia Society's renowned Mr. and Mrs. John D. Rockefeller 3rd Collection. Due to the rarity and light sensitivity of the art, there will be a rotation of many of the works during the week of March 31.

Designed for Pleasure is accompanied by a lavish full-color 256-page catalogue edited by Julia Meech and Jane Oliver with essays by John T. Carpenter, Timothy Clark, Julie Nelson Davis, Allen Hockley, Donald Jenkins, David Pollack, Sarah E. Thompson, and David Waterhouse. Like the exhibition, the catalogue essays by renowned ukiyo-e scholars offer both a reevaluation of the art and a new foundation for understanding the interrelationships among painting, prints, and book illustration in 17th-, 18th-, and 19th-century Japan. The catalogue is published by Asia Society, New York, and Japanese Art Society of America, in association with the University of Washington Press, Seattle and London.

Support for this exhibition has been provided by the National Endowment for the Arts, John C. Weber, the Blakemore Foundation, Mary Livingston Griggs & Mary Griggs Burke Foundation, Ellen Bayard Weedon Foundation, Peggy and Dick Danziger, and the Japan Foundation. WNYC Radio is a media sponsor of this exhibition.

Related Programs
Asia Society will present a number of related public programs to coincide with Designed for Pleasure, providing audiences with additional contextual framework for enjoying the exhibition. Catalogue author Julie Nelson Davis of the University of Pennsylvania will give a lecture on February 26 at 6:00 p.m. titled "Enterprising Designs for Pleasure: Master Publisher Tsutaya Juzaburo and his Circle in Edo Japan." A daylong symposium on March 1 - co-sponsored by the Japanese Art Dealers Association - will bring together scholars, curators and art historians to address the intersection of popular art, literature and entertainment during the Edo period. Author, playwright and way of tea practitioner Ellis Avery will read from her new novel, The Teahouse Fire, followed by a demonstration of tea practice and book signing on March 7 at 7:00 p.m. Additional Japan-related programming includes a series of yakuza (Japanese gangster) films curated by Ian Buruma, which will be screened during March and April. For more detailed program information and an updated schedule of events, visit

About the Japanese Art Society of America
The Japanese Art Society of America (JASA) promotes the study and appreciation of Japanese art. Founded in 1973 as the Ukiyo-e Society of America by collectors of Japanese prints, the Society's mission has expanded to include related fields of Japanese art and culture. JASA sponsors important exhibitions, lecture series, and visits to private collections and publishes a quarterly Newsletter for members as well as an annual journal, Impressions, the sole English-language publication in North America devoted exclusively to the arts of Japan. Its international membership includes collectors, scholars, dealers, and art enthusiasts. For program information, visit

About the Asia Society
Asia Society is the leading global and pan-Asian organization working to strengthen relationships and promote understanding among the people, leaders and institutions of the United States and Asia. The Society seeks to increase knowledge and enhance dialogue, encourage creative expression, and generate new ideas across the fields of policy, business, education, arts and culture. Founded in 1956 by John D. Rockefeller 3rd, Asia Society is a nonprofit educational institution with offices in Hong Kong, Houston, Los Angeles, Manila, Melbourne, Mumbai, New York, San Francisco, Seoul, Shanghai, and Washington, D.C.

Asia Society Museum presents groundbreaking exhibitions and artworks, many previously unseen in North America. Through exhibitions and related public programs, Asia Society provides a forum for the issues and viewpoints reflected in both traditional and contemporary Asian art.

Asia Society and Museum
725 Park Avenue (at 70th Street), New York City. The Museum is open Tuesday through Sunday from 11:00 am to 6:00 p.m. and Friday from 11:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m. Closed on Mondays and major holidays. General admission is $10, seniors $7, students $5 and free for members and persons under 16. Free admission Friday evenings, 6:00 to 9:00 p.m.

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Contact: Elaine Merguerian at 212-327-9271