Once widely collected, but today rarely appearing on people’s homes, Japanese woodblock prints can be seen lining the walls of the old office of senior partner Bertram “Bert” Cooper, (played Robert Morse) in seasons one through four of the television series Mad Men. Woodblock printing is one of the oldest techniques of creating prints dating back to 3rd century China. Cooper’s prints are Japanese and of these are at least three distinct genres of Japanese woodblock prints prevalent in Cooper’s collection. These include Ukiyo-e, Shunga (a subset of Ukiyo-e) and Shin-hanga, dating from the 17th century through today.
Ukiyo-e, meaning “pictures of the floating world” are by far the the most common genre of antique Japanese woodblock prints and date to the Edo period from 1603-1868. These can be found at art and estate auctions and depending on the subject matter a genuine print from the 1800’s or earlier can be purchased (incredibly) for less than $100 for a common image or later strike. Some Ukiyo-e prints however still bring in tens of thousands of dollars. Among the most prolific and prevalent artists for Ukiyo-e prints found at auction include Utagawa Toyokuni, Kunisada and Hiroshige to name a just a few among a slew of great artists from one of Japan’s greatest periods for print production. The Ukiyo-e prints that can be seen hanging in the background of scenes in Cooper’s office depict landscapes, images of Mt. Fuji and in general Kabuki actors or other figures.
Less prevalent in Cooper’s office are Shin-hang prints, literally meaning “new prints” which are more modern Japanese woodblock prints dating from approximately 1885 through the 1960’s. Hasui and Yoshida are among the more desirable artists for Shin-hanga prints and command higher prices than the average Ukiyo-e prints. Unfortunately only fleeting glimpses of these can be seen in the show (in other words, I thought I saw one once in the background).
The only time any real attention is given to one of Cooper’s woodblock prints is in the first episode of the fourth season when Hokisai’s “Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife” is shown, used as a metaphor for the skill and insight of the show’s protagonist Don Draper (played by Jon Hamm). While admiring the the piece Cooper exclaims “Who is the man who imagined her ecstasy?” and when Draper walks in says “Don we were just talking about you” referring to Draper’s talent for manipulation. In fact, this piece is representative of Shunga and based on a Japanese folk tale.
Shunga, is a Japanese word meaning “picture of spring.” It is a euphemism for sex and is a subset of Ukiyo-e printing that features erotic art. Unlike the popular, picturesque and comparatively innocuous views popularized by Hiroshige and Toyokuni, Shunga depicts graphic sexual acts. During the Edo period Shunga was very popular, although it was considered the pornography of the era and its distribution was at times restricted by the government. Nevertheless, it was widely traded in underground markets. Nearly every major artist of the period produced Shunga because it was lucrative and did not have an adverse affect on their reputation. It was acceptable. Today, Shunga pieces are uncommon at auction and even more uncommon on walls as they can be quite graphic, including closeup images of genitals, same-sex intercourse and of course, bestiality. Imagine explaining such a print to your parents if they came to visit and found this on your wall.
In fact, the print on Cooper’s wall could not possibly be an original or real as the original by Hokusai was printed in a Manga (book) which would have been octavo in size as was common for Shunga and a good way to keep it out of sight. As is evident from the show, Cooper’s is a very large reproduction for dramatic effect. The original, depending on the condition of the book, might sell anywhere from $800-5000. Other Shunga prints at auction, like other Ukiyo-e prints, can be obtained for under $100 or in the low hundreds with few exceptional pieces in the thousands of dollar range.
It is unfortunate that in season 5, Cooper moved out of his Japanese office to one with more contemporary decor. Hopefully, as his character has an established taste for Japanese art perhaps it will find it’s way back on to the show. This is after all not the first time that Robert Morse, (a.k.a. Bert Cooper) has found himself in an Asian style office. In the 1967 musical How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying, in which Morse, who’s character J. Pierrepont Finch, rises to the position of Vice President of Advertising, he finds himself in an Asian style office with Chinese decor. I can only wonder if Morse’s Mad Men character’s affinity for the Asian style is a tribute to his previous 1960’s role in advertising on Broadway and the big screen. Hopefully, his love of the Japanese arts having been established in seasons past will reappear in the new season.