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Woodblock Prints

Woodblock Prints Illustrate the History and Sensuality of Japanese Baths

An exhibition of ukiyo-e woodblock prints depicts the evolution of Japanese bathing culture, even the dirty parts.

Andrew Salomone

Bathing may be an essential part of maintaining good personal hygiene, but it's also a cultural tradition in Japan, and the progression of Japanese bathing culture can now be seen at New York's Ronin Gallery. After the Bath is an exhibition spanning the 17th through 21st centuries and illustrating the historic developments in bathing culture as well as traditional Japanese printmaking.

"Though artists adapted to an evolving medium, the significance of the bath endured over the five century span of this exhibition. After the Bath highlights the continuity of this subject matter across changing printmaking techniques, styles, and interpretations," David Libertson, President of Ronin Gallery, tells Creators.

Logistically, the prevalence of bathhouse scenes in Japanese prints might be explained by the opportunity they afford artists to depict the human form while illustrating everyday life. "In the context of Japanese tradition, the bath is a particularly important ritual," explains Libertson. "Whether one visits a community bath, an outdoor onsen, or sinks into their own personal furo (tub), the bath is a time to relax and recharge. Woodblock print artists captured the quiet ceremony of the bath throughout the years," he adds.

Hokusai, Poem by Fujiwara no Yoshitaka: At a Hot Spring, From the series One Hundred Poems Explained by the Nurse, Woodblock print, 1835.

Along with imagery that might typically be seen in a bathhouse, like steaming water, naked bodies, and people wearing robes, some of the works in the exhibition are explicitly sexual. According to Libertson, these works are called shunga and were common during Japan's Edo period, which lasted from 1603 to 1868. This period is the time most strongly associated with the ukiyo-e woodcut tradition, which produced many of Japan's most iconic woodblock prints, including those by Katsushika Hokusai. "Nearly all ukiyo-e artists produced works of shunga (though these works were often unsigned as to avoid trouble with censorship laws). The audience for these prints spanned all classes and genders," Libertson explains.

Koryusai, Couple at the Bathtub, Woodblock print, 1772.

In addition to the sexual nature of the shunga works in the exhibition, they also illustrate circumstances specific to Japanese bathing tradition at that time. "Due to the ubiquity of co-ed communal baths in the Edo period, nudity was not inherently sexual. Though bathhouses are largely split by gender today, some rural locales may have co-ed public baths," Libertson points out.

Koryusai, In the Bathhouse, Woodblock Print, 1770.

Although changes in Japanese bathing culture can been seen throughout the exhibition, some aspects of the tradition have remained consistent over the centuries. For instance, a careful observer might notice that even though many of the people in the prints are nude, no tattoos can be seen. Libertson says the reason for this is that tattoos are still forbidden in most public bathhouses. "Despite growing popularity among Japan's younger generations, tattoos remain closely associated with the Yazkuza, Japan's organized crime syndicate."

Kotondo, Steam, Woodblock print, 1929.
Sarah Brayer, Spring Bath, Aquatint, 2013.

After the Bath will be on display at Ronin Gallery in Manhattan through August 17th, 2017. For more information see The Ronin Gallery website.

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