August 11, 2011

Heian Period Tale of the Nightingale in the Plum Tree

The term ukiyo-e, literally “pictures of the floating world,” refers to a genre of Japanese artwork that flourished in the Edo period (1600–1868). As the phrase “floating world” suggests, with its roots in the ephemeral worldview of Buddhism, ukiyo-e captured the fleeting dynamics of contemporary urban life. While being accessible and catering to “common” tastes, the artistic and technical details of these prints show remarkable sophistication, their subjects ranging from portraits of courtesans and actors to classical literature. This print by Kitao Shigemasa (1739–1820) illustrates an 11th-century tale from Ōkagami (Great mirror). The story begins with the emperor grieving about the death of a plum tree in his garden, in which a nightingale used to sing and announce the coming of spring. A court official happens upon a magnificent tree standing next to a house, and negotiates with the owner to relocate it to the emperor’s garden. Upon parting, the owner ties to its branches a verse about the lament of a nightingale that has lost its home. Surprised by the talent of its writer, the emperor discovers that the owner of the tree was the daughter of a great 10th-century poet, Ki no Tsurayuki; the court official had unknowingly uprooted a precious memento of her father. Thereafter, the tree is treasured as the Ōshukubai (plum tree in which the nightingale resides).

Kume the Immortal Spies on a Beauty

The term ukiyo-e, literally “pictures of the floating world,” refers to a genre of Japanese artwork that flourished in the Edo period (1600–1868). As the phrase “floating world” suggests, with its roots in the ephemeral worldview of Buddhism, ukiyo-e captured the fleeting dynamics of contemporary urban life. While being accessible and catering to “common” tastes, the artistic and technical details of these prints show remarkable sophistication, their subjects ranging from portraits of courtesans and actors to classical literature. This sumizuri-e (monochrome print) is unsigned, but recent scholars have attributed this early work to prominent Edo print and book artist Sugimura Jihei, who flourished from the 1680s to early 1700s and was a follower of Hishikawa Moronobu. The subject of the print is Kume the Immortal, a renowned recluse who mastered the power to travel through the air at will. In this depiction, the sight of a young woman baring her legs while washing clothes caused Kume to lose his concentration and fall from the sky.

Shibaura

The term ukiyo-e, literally “pictures of the floating world,” refers to a genre of Japanese artwork that flourished in the Edo period (1600–1868). As the phrase “floating world” suggests, with its roots in the ephemeral worldview of Buddhism, ukiyo-e captured the fleeting dynamics of contemporary urban life. While being accessible and catering to “common” tastes, the artistic and technical details of these prints show remarkable sophistication, their subjects ranging from portraits of courtesans and actors to classical literature. Katsushika Hokusai (1760–1849) was a prolific artist and woodblock printer who contributed greatly to bringing ukiyo-e landscape imagery to a pinnacle, along with his rival Utagawa Hiroshige. Hokusai’s landscapes were more imaginative than naturalistic, creating dynamic scenery that revealed his inner personality and deep knowledge of the subject. This image, in the rare format of a printed envelope, forms part of the series Tōto Hyakkei (100 Views in the Eastern Capital). It depicts pilgrims at a roadside rest stop, with Mount Fuji looming in the distance.

A View of Nakazu

The term ukiyo-e, literally “pictures of the floating world,” refers to a genre of Japanese artwork that flourished in the Edo period (1600–1868). As the phrase “floating world” suggests, with its roots in the ephemeral worldview of Buddhism, ukiyo-e captured the fleeting dynamics of contemporary urban life. While being accessible and catering to “common” tastes, the artistic and technical details of these prints show remarkable sophistication, their subjects ranging from portraits of courtesans and actors to classical literature. Utagawa Toyoharu (1735–1814) was the founder of the Utagawa school, which was highly influential in the 19th century. He studied Western art and applied the technique of linear perspective to ukiyo-e, advancing the style that had been used by Okumura Masanobu. He experimented with various subjects ranging from Kabuki actors to European landscapes, but overall his images are characterized by a certain gentleness and warmth, outlined by fluid brushstrokes. This 1772–73 print shows pedestrians crossing a bridge spanning a river crowded with boats.

Courtesan

The term ukiyo-e, literally “pictures of the floating world,” refers to a genre of Japanese artwork that flourished in the Edo period (1600–1868). As the phrase “floating world” suggests, with its roots in the ephemeral worldview of Buddhism, ukiyo-e captured the fleeting dynamics of contemporary urban life. While being accessible and catering to “common” tastes, the artistic and technical details of these prints show remarkable sophistication, their subjects ranging from portraits of courtesans and actors to classical literature. Shunshō (1726–93) was a leading artist of the Katsukawa school, which emphasized realism rather than idealistic or dream-like portrayals of traditional ukiyo-e subjects. He helped develop nishiki-e (full-color prints) in 1765, along with artist Suzuki Harunobu. This bijin-ga (pictures of beautiful women) portraying a courtesan is a rare work by Shunshō, who primarily produced sumo wrestler and warrior prints during this period. It is in the format of hashira-e (pillar print), intended for display on support pillars in buildings.

Courtesan Gazing at Nihon Embankment

The term ukiyo-e, literally “pictures of the floating world,” refers to a genre of Japanese artwork that flourished in the Edo period (1600–1868). As the phrase “floating world” suggests, with its roots in the ephemeral worldview of Buddhism, ukiyo-e captured the fleeting dynamics of contemporary urban life. While being accessible and catering to “common” tastes, the artistic and technical details of these prints show remarkable sophistication, their subjects ranging from portraits of courtesans and actors to classical literature. Bijin-ga (pictures of beautiful women) capture the trends in feminine beauty by featuring both real and idealized images of high-ranking courtesans, historic figures, geisha (performers of music and dance), lower-ranked courtesans, fictional characters, notable townswomen, and ordinary women. In this print, dating from around 1794, Toyokuni (1769–1825) portrays a courtesan standing, depicting her at a moment of her daily life rather than emphasizing overt eroticism. Toyokuni was a widely renowned ukiyo-e artist, and helped to establish nishiki-e (full-color prints) as a popular art form throughout Japan.