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Coded Meanings

Though beautiful, Edo-period prints can be difficult to decode by the modern viewer.
What might at first appear to be a simple image often turns out to contain coded messages for those “in the know,” including playful references to the many popular amusements and celebrities associated with the floating world. 

Monk Kisen from the series Six Poetic Immortals
Monk Kisen, from the series Six Poetic Immortals, approx. 1770–1829, by Chobunsai Eishi (1756–1829). Woodblock print; ink and colors on paper. Courtesy of Asian Art Museum, San Francisco, Gift of the Grabhorn Ukiyo-e Collection, 2005.100.89.
Many prints allude to a seasonal activity popular among urban residents of the time—outings on Boys’ Day (5/5 in the lunar calendar) or celebrations of the Star Festival (7/7 in the lunar calendar), to take just two examples. Seeing these images, viewers might have recalled similarly festive occasions, or pictured themselves as a print’s attractive subject, dressed to the nines and freed for a while from everyday obligations.

Themes from classical literature are often cited in prints, and more often, parodied. The combination of “high” and “low” culture was popular among Edo-period artists, and widely enjoyed by contemporary audiences. Many Edo-period prints feature heroes and heroines of the 10th-century Tales of Ise or allude to the romantic exploits of the 11th-century novel The Tale of Genji—with characters dressed in modern costumes. Sly games of tongue-in-cheek inference carried a special appeal within a culture that celebrated wit, double identities and hidden agendas. 

The Printer’s Eye: Ukiyo-e from the Grabhorn Collection features a total of 88 exquisite prints, along with the “insider knowledge” you’ll need to interpret the fascinating stories beneath each unique and complex design.