On my first visit to “Painting the Floating World: Ukiyo-e Masterpieces,” I was so mesmerized by the dazzling patterns in the robes of the geishas that I did, indeed, float around the gallery.
“My god, a whole exhibit devoted to prostitution,” my companion whispered halfway around the showcased Japanese beauties.
I dragged back-to-back out-of-towners to The Art Institute of Chicago to see the paintings of Japan’s “metropolitan amusements to life,” as the curator describes it. The Weston Collection of concubines and geishas were painted between 1600-1850, the Edo Period, dubbed by the Japanese of the time as the “floating world”.
My visitors were as entranced as I was with a particular part of the exhibit. Behind Japanese-style slatted-wood walls, long scrolls were rolled out flat in climate-controlled glass-topped tables. Moving sideways foot-by-foot in silent walking meditation, I peered down at the cases to study the painted images: depictions of men and women flirting and kissing, men and women embracing, then men and women in the most preposterous coital positions. Colorful garments wrap around their legs and arms, leaving the genital areas fully exposed. It had been a long time since I’d seen an erect penis. I had no idea there were so many ways to use it. The Manasquan High School gym teacher in New Jersey didn’t cover positions in 1960s sex education. Edo Period Japanese parents, however, bequeathed these scrolls to their newly-wed offspring for their sex education. How grateful I would have been had my mother given me the modern equivalent, The Joy of Sex.
My friend gasped. “I didn’t realize Japanese males were so well-endowed.”
I shrugged. “Well, don’t forget, all the artists were men.”
My cousin Therese came to town for Thanksgiving, and I couldn’t wait to get her to the Art Institute. I resisted briefing her as we ascended the stairs to the exhibit, stopping first to see American Gothic and Georgia O’Keefe. I left her at the Floating World entrance and pointed to the sign for the Member’s Lounge.
“I’ll meet you there. Take your time.”
The Member’s Lounge sets out catalogs for every exhibit. I grabbed a coffee, the Floating World book and settled into a chair at a corner table scrunched up against a wall crammed with dozens of other cafe tables and chairs. I was deep into searching for the scrolls of the erect-penis paintings when I felt the rustling of a neighboring body. A man with Asian features was squeezing himself into the adjacent table. I resumed my search. A jolting woman’s voice interrupted my task asking to sit at the Asian man’s table. I resumed my search.
“What do you think of acupuncture?” The woman asked the Asian man.
“I really don’t know anything about it,” he said.
“You’re kidding?” said the woman.
“I was in Chinatown yesterday for acupuncture,” she said her voice reaching the third octave.
What was going on? Was she so charged up after seeing the erect-penis paintings of Asian men she had to create stupid pick-up lines for this guy? The two of them carried on as if they were in a bar drinking sake. I abandoned my search for photos of the erect-penis scrolls and grabbed my notebook to record their conversation.
Just then Therese came through the door of the Members’ Lounge, caught my eye and burst out laughing.
“Wow. No wonder you left me by myself—so I could blush in secret!”
“Therese,” I mumbled, letting her in on the conversation at the next table, “there’s so much writing material here. I could sit in here every day during this exhibit and come up with a whole book, “The Overheards in the Members Lounge.”
“Yes, you know. Things you overhear. Write it all down.”
“Is that legal?” Therese asked.