'Courtesan seated smoking with an adolescent client' (1799) by Kitagawa Utamaro

How can you go wrong with wood-block prints that capture the pleasures of the "Floating World"? It is a long-ago vanished world that is all the more beautiful because it knew it was a vanishing world. The artists who made these wood-block prints in 17th- and 18th-century Japan, and the people who are captured in the prints, and those who look at the prints in the present, and those who will look at them in the future all share the same understanding: These moments of love, lust, laughter, and leisure are fleeting. No matter where we are in space and time, this feeling of time's brevity unifies us; all of us also know how hard (if not impossible) it is to break the one law of pleasure: The more of it we experience—the sweetness of a kiss, a visit to the theater, the reading of an excellent poem—the briefer the moment. (Pain only knows how to last for a very long time.)

A few of the prints in Seattle Asian Art Museum's exhibition Fleeting Beauty are very well-known (for example, In the Well of the Wave off Kanagawa—Hokusai's towering, fingered wave tossing three boats); others are less familiar but made by masters of the period—Utamaro, Hiroshige, and Harunobu. The prints have three main themes: village life, scenes from nature, and Edo's nightlife (Edo is now called Tokyo).

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As you can imagine, the prints that command my attention concern the urban pleasure-seekers (my ancestors): the courtesan reading a letter, the gentlemen smoking pipes, the young lady reflecting on her reflection in a mirror, the playful poet pulling a fold on an elaborate summer robe. The sophisticates in the prints—the actors, artists, merchants, and prostitutes—meet and enjoy each other's company (A Youth and a Girl Playing Samisen Together on Beach Beside a Stream), meet and just look at each other (Woman Sewing While a Man Watches), meet and fuck (Courtesan and Client Watched by Her Attendant). Indeed, the one thing that is lacking in this otherwise fine show is prints from the erotic shunga ("spring pictures") tradition.

There are only two such prints in the exhibit, one of which does not have those delightfully gigantic organs—tree-trunk-thick penis, elephantine vagina. The lack is hard not to notice because shunga was an important part of the ukiyo-e moment. Also, who can ever get enough of those graphic prints, those organs, their terrific size, the robes flowing all over the fuckers, the throbbing head of the cock on the verge of entering the cave of a pussy, the locked little lips, the shy voyeur? To show only one graphic shunga print, and for it to be one of the few prints in the exhibition not in color, is a bit disappointing. Ten or more shungas would have put a cherry on top of Fleeting Beauty. recommended

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