Floating by as naturally as music

This beautiful woodcut print designed by Utamaro in the last few years of the 18th century, apart from its delightful celebration of Japanese fashions and manners of a past era (which, even then, must have been greatly idealized in the sophisticated imaginations of Japanese artists), has the character of music. No part of this friezelike arrangement of figures is more distant from the viewer than any other. Each figure, and each grouping of them in the three compartments of the print, is immediately in front of us, and the rhythmic play of contour, pattern and color - though tied together by the continuous balustrade of the bridge - is experienced, like music, in the order of a time-scale, as parts that first juxtapose and then interweave with one another. Each girl relates to her neighbor with a perfect sense of ''timing.''

Fans, parasols, kimonos, sashes, headdresses, the willowy arms and necks that spring out of this sea of lines and colors like self-consciously decorative fishes - and, most of all, the turning in different directions of the finely drawn heads and the minute hands: all these interrelate, overlap, direct the eye along a gracefully twisting path, echo, repeat vary shapes like different instruments in an orchestra elaborating amelody.

There is nothing really like this in Western art, nothing that concentrates so undetractedly on linear mannerism, moving calligraphically across the surface of the paper. A highly selective kind of observation is involved in it, the behavior of certain types, but the artist is more centrally concerned with the felicities of his own work.

Utamaro's inventiveness was almost always strictly within the long-accrued traditions of Ukiyo-e, or ''popular'' Japanese art. Most of his work was for woodcut prints.

These required considerable cooperation between publisher, designer, engraver and printer, as well as an acceptane by the designer of a basic technique. ''Beautiful women'' of various classes and occupations were by far the most frequent motifs of Utamaro's art, as they were of other Ukiyo-e designers. J. Hillier has written the following about the school: . . . the style . . . was adapted to the depiction in a novel way of the capital, edo, of the singing- and dancing- girls, of the courtesans, the wrestlers and the Kabuki theatre. The shallowness and gaiety of its subject matter earned the school its soubriquet Ukyo-ryu, ''style of the floating world.''

What could be more appropriate a setting for the display of the charmingly commonplace than a bridge where people naturally gather to watch the ''floating'' world which passes under it? Utamaro, in fact, designed three more sheets showing ''under the bridge'' as well: the whole thing quite a tour de force. But each part of a work even as ambitious as this can still be separately enjoyed, an achievement that is due not only to the consummate sense of balance and interval, of spaces and shapes beautifully related, and of a marvellous economy of line, but also because in traditional Japanese art perspective in the Western sense was scarcely used. Thus every aspect of a work can have prominence , and although spaces - depths of great subtlety were described by overlapping surfaces (Utamaro came up with some brilliant notions of this kind) - in essence everything takes place on a frontal plane. Here again Utamaro shows his considerable ingenuity by placing his figures high up against nothing but empty sky, allowing us to trace the visual music without confusion or background intrusion. He invests the ''shallowness'' of his subject matter (though indeed it is no ''shallower'' than many of the subjects favored by those admirers of the Japanese Ukiyo-e print, the French Impressionists) with an ideal stateliness.

It is as if these girls were engaged in some measured processional dance, and then he delightedly punctuates their stylized dignity with small touches of incident. His contrived style, as artificial perhaps as art can be, somehow persuades us of its complete naturalness.

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