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The Warsaw Voice » Culture » January 9, 2008
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Samurais and Ladies
January 9, 2008 By M.H.    
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A collection of Japanese ukiyo-e wood block prints is on display in a Toruń exhibition entitled Samurais, Women and Actors.

The chonin were a wealthy class in Japanese society but were discriminated against by the laws of the time. The chonin included city dwellers who were craftsmen and merchants. They were low in the social hierarchy because they performed what was considered by Japanese society at the time the dishonorable task of earning money. And although they had a lot of purchasing power, they were limited by strict laws. For example, the way they dressed, the type of dishes that they used or the kind of housing they could live in were strictly regulated. Separated from the mainstream, the chonin created their own culture. It was based on the popular theater called kabuki, and also other forms of art, such as the art of wood block prints called ukiyo-e, associated with Yoshiwara, the suburb of pleasure in the Japanese capital Edo, today Tokyo.

Ukiyo-e is also the name of the art school established in 1680. Artists made portraits of the heroes of chonin culture, the beauties (bijin-ga) from the Yoshiwara suburb of pleasure and popular actors of popular theater (yahusha-e).

The first ukiyo-e wood block prints, called sumizuri-e, were black and white. In order to achieve color prints they were hand painted. Then to achieve colorful prints, several blocks were engraved, each for a separate color. Several people participated in the making of a wood block print-the painter who produced the design, the wood cutter who engraved the individual blocks according to the artist's design, and the printer, who added colors.

The publisher was important in the creation of the wood block prints, organizing the production and sale, often risking his own money. On the prints, next to the publisher's and the artist's stamp is also the stamp of the censor.

The wood block print collection at the District Museum in Toruń comprises 29 works. Some of the main ukiyo-e subjects were portraits of women and social scenes. Especially interesting is work by Utagawa Toyokuni (1769-1825), depicting an elegant lady playing on a string instrument called the koto. The other popular subject of Japanese wood block prints was the popular kabuki theater. They were treated in the same way as today's posters.

A terrific triptych depicting a New Year's show at the Kawarazakiza theater by Toyokuni shows the inside of a kabuki theater during a show.

There are two works by an unknown artist in the District Museum in Toruń. They represent the kachoga trend in wood block prints, which includes birds and flowers.

The exhibition includes outfits, militaria and depictions of everyday objects-kimonos, fabrics, an umbrella, a sake dish, and also decorated Japanese weapons, together with samurai armor and a helmet.

District Museum in Toruń, Rynek Square, Kamienica pod Gwiazd± house, until Jan. 13
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