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Ukiyo: The Floating World

Hishikawa Moronobu - Cherry-blossom Viewing at Ueno - Edo period - Six-panel folding screen; ink, color and gold just on silk - 38 7/16 x 16 1/4 in. - Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, MA (click photo for larger image)Ukiyo-e (pronounced oo-kee-oh-ay) was a popular form of printed art in Japan during the Edo period (1600s-1867). It was inexpensive and usually depicted scenes from everyday life.

Ukiyo translates as the floating world—an ironic wordplay on the Buddhist name for the earthly plane, the sorrowful world. Ukiyo was the name given to the lifestyle in Japan's urban centers of this period—the fashions, the entertainments, and the pleasures of the flesh. Ukiyo-e is the art documenting this era.

Ukiyo-e is especially known for its exceptional woodblock prints. After Japan opened trade with the West after 1867, these prints became very well-known and influential in Europe, and especially in France. Japonisme (as it was called) influenced such artists as Toulouse-Lautrec, Degas, Monet, Van Gogh, and Whistler. It also influenced the graphic artists known as Les Nabis. (These artists and Les Nabis are all discussed elsewhere on What About Art?) 

The founder of the Ukiyo-e school was the 17th-century artist, Hishikawa Moronobu (c. 1618-1694). He was born in Hota on the Boso Peninsula (present-day Chiba Prefecture). His father is said to have been a brocade artisan producing nuihaku embroidery (using gold and silver thread) who had moved to the Kanto region from Kyoto. Moronobu left home for nearby Edo in 1662 to study painting. While it isn’t known who taught him, we do know that he learned the basic techniques that had been developed by the Kano school.

Before long, he became active as a book illustrator. There are more than 60 extant books bearing his signed illustrations. He also became well-known as a scroll and screen painter. His favorite subjects included flower viewing at Ueno, people enjoying the evening breeze along the Sumida River in summer, and people attending plays. It seems that he received many contract orders, and some of his works were produced in ateliers where he employed several pupils. He was successful in popularizing some of his originally one-of-a-kind paintings by making copies as woodblock prints.

Moronobu produced only 12 handscrolls, but each of these was later adapted to multiple production in the form of monochrome woodblock prints. Moronobu's pupils of a somewhat later generation experimented with large monochrome prints based on what were originally hand-painted bijinga (pictures of beautiful women) produced as hanging scrolls.

Moronobu's importance lies in his effective consolidation of the ephemeral styles of early genre painting and illustration. His controlled, powerful brushstrokes and solid, dynamic figures, provided the groundwork for ukiyoe masters of the following two centuries, Ando Hiroshige among them.

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