Chōbunsai Eishi, “Woman Writing a Poem on a Fan” (1789/1801), Weston Collection (all images courtesy the Art Institute of Chicago)

Wherever the middle class rises, it brings art down to earth: it’s true of Gustave Courbet, eschewing neoclassical gods to paint the common folk in 19th-century France; of the gritty Victorian novel in England; and, though in a different way, of the Japanese scroll and screen paintings of Painting the Floating World: Ukiyo-e Masterpieces from the Weston Collection currently on display at the Art Institute of Chicago. Visitors enter to see enormous, early 17th-century folding screens painted with panoramas of Nara and Kyoto. These are not bourgeois artworks, but a nobleman’s possessions intended to make a striking impression of power upon his visitors, showing the temples, fortresses, and thriving cities within his domain.

Yet a closer look at these screens reveals countless tiny scenes of ordinary people going about their lives: lighting lanterns, worshipping, smoking pipes, or simply talking in the streets. These figures indicate the new direction Japanese art was about to take over the next two centuries, its growing emphasis on daily life (a popular subject with the merchants in the thronging cities), and a corresponding move away from the representations of myth and heroic legend that dominated the art in temples and noble houses in earlier periods.

Hishikawa Moronobu, “Detail of Genre Scenes of Edo” (1688/1704), Weston Collection

First seen in Kyoto, then in Edo, the new Japanese art depicted ukiyo, or the Floating World — a term that initially referred to a Buddhist doctrine of the impermanence of the world, but soon encompassed the passing pleasures and temporary beauties of life in the designated pleasure districts of Japan’s great cities. Known in the West largely through the popular woodblock prints that had a profound influence on modern art, the Art Institute presents ukiyo-e in its upmarket version, with over 150 painted screens and hanging scrolls.

The subjects of these works include nigao-e (portraits of actors) and bijinga (portraits of famous beauties, often high-status sex workers of the pleasure districts and their attendants), as well as images of people enjoying the theater, making music, reading or writing letters, or in processions to view those most transient of beauties, seasonal cherry trees in blossom. They also include shunga, scrolls depicting sex acts between men and women, men and men, and (rarely) women and women. The Art Institute handles these scrolls with some discretion, laying them flat in narrow spaces behind larger painted screens, so the exhibit remains appropriate for all ages.

Unknown artist, “Female Dancers with Fans” (1624/45), Weston Collection

A few of the scrolls make learned allusions to religious and literary texts: Tamura Suio’s “Courtesan and Elephant” (1716), for example, references Yoshido Kenko’s Essays in Idleness (c. 1310), as well as the legend of the bodhisattva of Fugen. But the vast majority required no elite education: they were made to be enjoyed by the busy and affluent merchant classes as much as by the samurai and noble daimyo, who increasingly dwelled in the cities. The pleasure district of Edo became a place where members of the rigidly separated classes could come together, enjoying aesthetic culture in all its varieties. The teahouses, in particular, fostered mingling between classes, often resulting in the writing of poems, some of which — including one signed by a powerful daimyo — were inscribed onto bijinga scrolls.

Katsushika Hokusai, “Woman with a Cat” (1801/18), Weston Collection

The images painted for these urbanites overwhelmingly depicted people: landscapes are of far less importance than the figures, and backgrounds are often either suggested by a few brushstrokes or absent altogether. When men were depicted, as in the case of nigao-e (women were forbidden to take the stage), they were often individualized, with characteristic large ears or asymmetrical eyes clearly reproduced. Such was not the case for women, who tended to be idealized in accordance with the norms of the period — although inscriptions and known mannerisms often identified the image with an individual rather than a social type. Such idealization signals that men commissioned these images. Courtesans’ poses in images likewise suggest a heterosexual male viewer: the women are frequently undressing or dressing, both acts implying intimacy, and the typical gesture of bijinga is the flirtatious or alluring backward glance over the shoulder.

For all their idealization, though, depictions of women vary considerably. Utagawa Toyokuni’s 24-painting series One Hundred Looks of Various Women (1816) represents women from a wide range of social strata — from noblewomen to geishas to saleswomen to low-status streetwalkers. Works from the Kaigetsudo studio use bold, thick lines on paper, and depict statuesque and imperious women, while the women in Matsuno Chikanobu’s work, painted on silk with the most expensive pigments, are smaller, with rounder, more childlike features. Perhaps the less-affluent buyers of Kaigetsudo’s works found the high-status courtesans of the pleasure district intimidating, unlike Chikanobu’s rich and powerful customers.

The emphasis on female beauty popularized the art of the Floating World with both male and female viewers: the paintings and woodcuts were a powerful medium for disseminating ideals of beauty to women. This extended to cosmetics (for instance, high-status women used white skin power) and, especially, fashion. In a society with strict rules of dress for people of different social standings, we might think that fashion would evolve slowly. Instead we see a constant stream of innovations pushing against received norms, reminiscent of the way private school students tweak and modify their uniforms.

Utagawa Toyokuni, a painting from One Hundred Looks of Various Women (1816), Weston Collection

With a few fanciful exceptions, the garments in the paintings reflect those worn by the people of Kyoto and Edo. Geometric or figurative, dyed or embroidered, extravagant or subtle, the kimonos, obi sashes, and outer robes depicted in the paintings are astonishing. The women who wove these fabrics are the exhibition’s unsung heroes, along with the courtesan’s attendants, who combined the patterns with a flair for unexpected harmonies. The hairstyles are works of art in their own right, especially from the 1730s on, when combs and hairpins proliferate and hair defies both expectations and gravity. The curators — Janice Katz and Mami Hatayama — are to be commended for including a video featuring the 90-year-old Minami Tomiko demonstrating her mastery of the traditional techniques of Japanese hair arrangement, an art as worthy of our admiration as ukiyo-e itself.

The Floating World depicted in the paintings of the Weston collection served, in some sense, as a pressure-release valve for a highly stratified society, allowing rival classes to come together in the appreciation of theater, poetry, music, and feminine beauty. It was also, of course, a fabrication. What we do not see in the artworks, particularly regarding women, matters: the purchase of shockingly young girls to serve as sex workers, the cycles of perpetual debt into which those girls were locked, the restrictions on the movements of even the most high-status courtesans outside the pleasure quarter, and the few paths of escape for the many women — perhaps 3,000 at any one time — forced into these conditions in the pleasure district of Edo. The dream of beauty — and its realization in these wondrous paintings — cannot be separated from that nightmare.

Painting the Floating World: Ukiyo-e Masterpieces from the Weston Collection continues at the Art Institute of Chicago (111 South Michigan Ave., Chicago, Illinois) through January 27.

Robert Archambeau is a poet and critic whose books include The Kafka Sutra, The Poet Resigns: Poetry in a Difficult Time, Inventions of a Barbarous Age: Poetry from Conceptualism to Rhyme Home and Variations,...