Review: “The Floating World: Masterpieces of Edo Japan” at the Blanton Museum of Art, Austin

by Lauren Moya Ford June 4, 2024

Texans have a rare opportunity to experience Japanese history in The Floating World: Masterpieces of Edo Japan at the Blanton Museum of Art. The expansive exhibition features more than 130 woodblock prints and painted scrolls from the Worcester Art Museum’s acclaimed John Chandler Bancroft Collection, which has never left its home institution in Massachusetts until now. Visitors to the first major display of Japanese art at the Blanton in more than 15 years are highly rewarded with an in-depth look at this fascinating moment in Japan when peace, prosperity, and patronage of the arts flourished in the country’s urban centers alongside pivotal cultural, social, and political change. 

The exhibition’s title comes from the Japanese word ukiyo-e, or “pictures of the floating world.” The term was initially connected to the Buddhist concept of life’s impermanence but later came to signify the large-scale pleasure-seeking underway in Kyoto, Osaka, and present-day Tokyo during the roughly 250-year Edo period. In 1661, the Buddhist priest and writer Asai Ryōi, described the spirit of ukiyo as appreciating nature, drinking sake, singing songs, and being “buoyant and carefree, like a gourd carried along with the river current.” After centuries of war finally came to a halt in the early 17th century, Japanese people were finally able to savor life, and even make and enjoy some art.

An Edo era woodblock print of people walking past a wealthy home.

Sugimura Jihei, “The Boys’ Festival,” 1690

An Edo era woodblock print of a western ship with people on the deck.

Utagawa Yoshiiku, “Picture of a Great Ship from America: In the Distance,” 1861

A pairing of very different prints opens the exhibition. The Boys’ Festival (1690) by Sugimura Jihei and Picture of a Great Ship from America: In the Distance (1861) by Utagawa Yoshiiku exemplify the momentous leaps in printmaking technique and national identity that the Edo period traversed. The earlier print, which portrays a family walking by a feudal lord’s compound in a traditional stone-walled style, is printed in simple black ink and is hand-colored. The later piece is a multi-block triptych finished with a band of deep Prussian blue ink that, like the picture’s subject, came to Japan from abroad. The event shown here — American Commodore Mathew Perry’s arrival to Edo Bay in 1853 — would open the country to foreign influence, and would eventually bring Japanese prints to the Impressionists, Vincent Van Gogh, and Bancroft himself. The end of the Edo period came some 15 years later. 

If these two prints present a succinct overview of just how much Japan changed during this era, the rest of the show offers a detailed deep dive into the tastes and customs of its people. Works related to burgeoning entertainments like kabuki theater, sumo wrestling, archery, falconry, festivals, and ceremonies give us a glimpse of people’s increasingly leisure-filled lives, while prints about folk tales, jokes, and historical events register a sense of the country’s intellect, beliefs, and mood.

An Edo era woodblock print of a woman riding a giant fish.

Detail of a print in “The Floating World: Masterpieces of Edo Japan”

The show also sheds light on prominent print genres of the day. Bijin-ga or “beautiful women pictures” glamorized the often difficult lives of geishas and courtesans of the highly trafficked pleasure quarters. Interestingly, this section also contains pieces that depict wakanshu, or young male sex workers. Meisho-e or “famous place pictures” became popular during the mid-19th century, and the exhibition features exceptional examples from iconic series by Katsushika Hokusai (Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji, 1830-32) and Utagawa Hiroshige (One Hundred Views of Edo, 1856-58).

An Edo era woodblock print of Mt Fuji.

Katsushika Hokusai, “South Wind, Clear Sky” from “Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji” , 1831

Remarkably, the show includes a printed fan by Hokusai (these would have typically been discarded after use), as well as other surprises like works of surimono, a genre of lavish, limited-edition prints that were privately commissioned by poetry aficionados for special occasions and sometimes adorned with silver and gold ink. People of the Edo period were highly literate, and these prints are clear examples of just how much they revered the arts. In all, the many prints of The Floating World form a compelling document of a crucial moment in world history that should not be missed.


The Floating World: Masterpieces of Edo Japan is on view at the Blanton Museum of Art in Austin through June 30, 2024.

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