Music in Ukiyo-e figured in many ways – through the act of listening or playing, or through music’s place in relation to a depicted character, perhaps a theatre actor or a geisha. These prints illustrate scenes of music making or scenes containing musical elements that are drawn from everyday life and from various Kabuki and Noh plays featuring stories of the past.
Japanese Gallery Kensington presents a collection of Ukiyo-e featuring musical instruments and those who were part of the world of entertainment. Prints by Utamaro Kitagawa, Yoshitoshi Tsukioka and Chikanobu Yoshu, amongst others, offer and insightful view into the world of traditional music and its importance in the visual culture of Japan during the Edo and Meiji periods.
The ukiyo or floating world was a domain of theatre and music, containing within it the idea of carefree existence, living for the moment and relishing in the aesthetic aspects of being. Music in Japanese visual culture also functioned as an important accompaniment and endorsement of beauty, playing a significant role in portraits of actors and women.
These print could be enjoyed audibly as much as they could visually and were designed to evoke the music associated with a given character’s identity. The emphasis was not so much on recalling the plot, but on remembering how one experienced the sound and feeling of the drama.
Beauty prints captured a similar sentiment. Those who could afford the company of geisha and courtesans wished to recall their experience. These women were regarded as the epitome of art and beauty and the presence of music highlighted their talents. In a sense, beauty in a geisha was incomplete without musical accompaniment.