Exhibition: Women of the Pleasure Quarters at the British Museum

When I went to see Shunga – Sex and Pleasure in Japanese Art at the British Museum recently, I also stopped by to see a small, related temporary exhibition. For a short period Room 3 was home to a screen called ‘Courtesans of the Tamaya House’ attributed to Utagawa Toyoharu (1735–1815), painted in the 1770s or early 1780s.

Courtesans of the Tamaya House attributed to Utagawa Toyoharu (late 1770s or early 1780s)

Courtesans of the Tamaya House attributed to Utagawa Toyoharu (late 1770s or early 1780s)

(Image: British Museum)

Here’s what the British Museum website has to say about the screen:

This beautiful screen evokes the world of pleasure and entertainment created for men in Japan of the early 1780s.

Welcome to Yoshiwara – the most famous brothel district of Edo (modern-day Tokyo). This rare surviving screen depicts elaborately dressed courtesans, who would today be referred to as female sex workers, presenting themselves to attract clients at the brothel known as Kado-Tamaya, the Jewel House on the Corner.

During the Edo period in Japan (1600–1868) a military government regulated almost every aspect of daily life, promoting duty and hard work, but the ‘floating world’ (ukiyo) of the brothel and theatre districts presented a more seductive message – surrender to the pleasures of the moment. Today the ‘floating world’ is known mostly through woodblock prints and hanging scrolls. This screen is one of the most important paintings from this school of art, being one of only a few large-scale depictions of the subject to have survived.

Combining evidence from popular prints and specialised guidebooks, this display offers insights into the culture, etiquette and sexual economy of the so-called ‘pleasure quarters’ (yūkaku) of the period. Explore the artistry of this exquisite screen and find out what it meant to be a woman of the pleasure quarters, both in public and in private.

The original use of this screen is unknown, but it would probably have been used either to provide background decoration or to act as a divider. Whatever it was originally used for, there’s no doubt that now this is a very important piece of art which gives us a great insight into the ‘floating world’.

Women of the pleasure quarters a Japanese painted screen

The ‘floating world’, or the Yoshiwara (吉原) pleasure quarter, was a secret, locked away world which functioned as a city of its own within Edo (Tokyo). Men of all ranks, including samurai, would visit the teahouses and brothels to spend time with the courtesans. This screen depicts a rare moment from this secret world. The women have idealised faces, rather than being painted as accurate portraits, which is fitting for an image of an idealised and somewhat fantastical world.

Women of the pleasure quarters a Japanese painted screen

Yoshiwara would have been entered through O-mon, a large gate along Nakanocho, the quarter’s main street.

Women of the pleasure quarters a Japanese painted screen

According to the information on display in the museum, “a courtesan’s price depended on her rank, but all prices doubled on special days (monbi) such as the cherry blossom festival. Further sums covered male and female dancers and entertainers (geisha), food, drink and the many servants in attendance”. The currency of the time was mon (文), and “a visitor to Yoshiwara might have paid as much as five ryo (両) and one bu (several thousand pounds) for one night’s entertainment”.

Women of the pleasure quarters a Japanese painted screen

It’s important to remember that although geisha were in the pleasure quarters as entertainers, it was the oiran (花魁 / courtesans) that men would pay to ‘be’ with. The protocol of the Yoshiwara was for the suitor to “entertain a high-ranking courtesan on three occasions before he could hope to have sex with her, although even then she might refuse him”. That’s a pretty expensive way to have fun!

Women of the pleasure quarters a Japanese painted screen

I find the ‘floating world’ fascinating, and feel honoured to have seen this screen which has been so carefully restored. The British Museum says:

It is possible that the screen was last restored in Japan in the 1900s. The vertical edges of the paintings were trimmed, possibly to remove damage from wear and tear. As a result the image does not line up fully from panel to panel: when the folding screen is flat some of the perspectives of the painted images do not match up evenly.

The paintings are painted on a fine Japanese paper called gasenshi, a type of traditional Chinese drawing paper primarily used in sumi-e and calligraphy. Gasenshi today is chiefly made of mitsumata combined with a smaller amount of other fibre such as bamboo or straw. The addition of these fibres makes this paper quite absorbent and soft, and an excellent surface for painting on.

The paintings were mounted top and bottom with decorative borders known as Oberi. These were made from silver-leaf on paper which had blackened and tarnished irreversibly. Therefore, the Oberi was replaced with specially selected mounting silks, enhancing the paintings.

Unfortunately the screen was only on display for a short period and the exhibition has now ended, but I’ll be on the look our for more art like this to share with you in the future.

Women of the pleasure quarters a Japanese painted screen

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