the floating world


Every element in a Japanese painting has symbolic value, chosen for its auspicious nature. Catalogue entries that describe a work merely as ‘birds and flowers’ entirely miss the point. Specific creatures have specific meanings and are associated with particular plants and seasons. Cranes go with pines, tortoises with bamboo, and all four signify long life. Screech quotes a humorous poem to the effect that the inept artist adds bamboo to an image so that the viewer will know that the animal in his picture is a tiger, not a cat. Tigers went with bamboos, cats with peonies. While the Kanō were the official painters of the shogunate, the Tosa worked for the emperor’s court in Kyoto. The court’s power had been wrested away by the shogunate centuries earlier. Its entire claim to reverence was that it perpetuated classical Japanese tradition. The Tosa painted scenes of the exquisite world of the ancient court. The snag was that the most revered classics, The Tale of Genji and The Tales of Ise, depict lives of utter decadence. Genji the Shining Prince spends his time seducing court ladies, while Narihira, the hero of The Tales of Ise, defiles the virgin priestess of Ise Shrine.

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