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Ukiyo-e, from the hand of a master

Early in the 17th century the Tokugawa shogunate decided to move the seat of military and political power in Japan from the old capital of Kyoto to a fishing village called Edo, today's Tokyo. By this act they did far more than affect the process of government, as little Edo, with surprising rapidity, became a vast urban and cultural centre whose new social and artistic ideas spread out into the countryside. By the time the print shown here was made, late in the 18th century, it was one of the largest cities in the world, with a population of nearly 1.5 million. Prosperous, vital, pleasure-loving, it had a flair for style , generating a way of life that had panache, elan.

The emperor, left behind in Kyoto and highly secluded, became ''a sacrosanct abstraction.'' Occupied with traditional ceremonial rites and duties, he remained the mediator between his heavenly ancestors and his subjects. But everything else lay in the hands of the shoguns and the samurai, the warriors.

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The Tokugawa period endured for 265 years, and was a time of peace. This created an unprecedented situation for the samurai, who had always lived by their swords: now they had to change their ways to survive. Among them were some who were intellectually endowed and adaptable, and Edo profited by their presence and their taste.

The wily Tokugawas held a tight rein on the country partly through their astute control of the feudal lords, of whom there were some 250. It was decreed that these nobles must build town houses in Edo, and live in them part of each year. Their families were obliged to settle permanently in the city, amounting to potential hostages who discouraged rebellious ideas.

Edo became the place to live, and the world flocked in: the feudal lords and their retainers, merchants, shopkeepers, artists, craftsmen, adventurers - and the samurai. Though in theory Japanese society retained its strict class structure, in the heady environment of the new town these barriers came to be largely ignored. The samurai, for instance, began to mingle with all sorts of people, and to encourage the arts. The burgeoning city grew rich through commerce and demanded amusement. This brought in the world of entertainment: the theatre, actors, singers, storytellers, geishas.

The history of Japan, so often intense, serious, and tragic, took on now a new phase - life became exhilarating, exuberant, even lighthearted. The name given this ambiance was ukiyo-e, or ''the floating world.'' This was a Buddhist term conveying a sense of the transient and dreamlike nature of earthly life, but it came to signify also the pleasures of the temporal world, particularly as interpreted by the citizens of Edo.

These pleasures (which covered a wide spectrum) included reading; this necessitated the production of printed and illustrated books. Novelists, poets, and publishers sprang up, as well as the artists and craftsmen who perfected the coloured woodblock print. This art, which reached its height as the 18th century progressed, had then as its most popular exponent the painter and print designer Kitagawa Utamaro.

One of the most important and largest book publishers in Edo was Tasadaya Jugaburo (1748-97), a patron of novelists and artists, who recognized Utamaro's genius when the latter was a young man, and in 1775 took him into his own house. The artist remained there for over forty years.

Prints were constantly appearing in Edo - prints of beauties, actors, landscapes, and all manner of genre themes. Highly decorative, and within the reach of almost everyone, these greatly enriched the life of the city and even the country - people identified themselves with them, and with their environment. The bold designs and strong colours of the fashionable kimonos, it has been remarked, were a symbol of the times; and nothing lent itself more perfectly to the coloured woodblock print.

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The print of the single feminine figure - a lady shown in a striking pose without background or props - was perhaps the favourite. These women were idealized: tall and willowy, they were not at all like most Japanese women, who tended to be short and strongly built. Utamaro went even further as his style matured - his models were not only slender and tall but he made the upper part of their bodies and especially their heads disproportionately large. This somehow never disrupted the grace and charm of the whole, so magical was his sense of design.

In this print the lady is divesting herself of her heavy, hot obi (sash) and slipping out of her outer kimono so that she may better endure the heat of a summer's day. Her gestures are so natural and easy that we share her relief in seeing the voluminous obi lying at her feet, and the kimono falling from her narrow shoulders. The picture is registered in Japan as an Important Art Object, and one well sees why. Looking at it, we realize that in some sense the floating world is part of everyone's world.

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