Pictures of the floating world

The West Vancouver Museum and the Nikkei National Museum have put on Ukiyoe Spectacular, an exhibition of over a hundred woodblock prints from a private collection in Japan. Ukiyoe, pictures of the floating world, were the forerunners of manga, Japanese comics. Like manga, ukiyoe  were produced not by a single artist, but a group. Each color needed a different block, and each block–there could be up to twenty–needed a different carver. In a demonstration of the technique, Shinsuke Minegishi showed how the tools were used (and still are, for woodblock printing is not a dead art), how the paper was prepared for printing, and how the carvers made sure their work fitted with that of their colleagues. The results are indeed spectacular, an unusually vivid insight into another culture’s  beliefs and traditions.

The prints on show are from the 1800s but printing began in Japan much earlier. I described its genesis in Driven by Desire, a book proposal which won the $12,500 Lupton prize, presented at Book Expo America. This was my fifteen minutes of literary glory. Agents circled like sharks. Everyone agreed it was a good idea: just as sex is used to sell new technologies, new technologies encourage new forms of sex. Bingo! But Driven by Desire failed to find a publisher. I just didn’t have marquee value. Then again, maybe it wasn’t focused enough. But I did enjoy researching and writing it.

It’s an interesting thesis. I fleshed out the proposal with two sample chapters. One told how photography made voyeurs of us all, starting with nineteenth-century Parisians. The other was City of Bachelors, about the tradition of shunga, Japanese erotic woodblock prints. It’s just gathering cyberdust on my hard drive and since it’s too long for a blog post I’ve given it a page of its own.

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