August 11, 2011

The Actor Ichikawa Danjūrō in the Role of Kudō Suketsune

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. Yakusha-e (pictures of actors) were inexpensive, costing about as much as a bowl of noodles, and were considered ephemera intended to be sold immediately as souvenirs and enjoyed briefly. They served to promote contemporary Kabuki actors, who were viewed as cultural icons. This innovative yakusha-e print is by Shunjō, who flourished in the 1780s. It shows a reflection in the mirror of the actor Ichikawa Danjōrō, dressed as Suketsune, a character from the Kabuki play Soga no Taimen (Meeting of the Soga). The play is based on a popular war chronicle set in the 12th century, in which the Soga brothers seek revenge for their father who was murdered by Suketsune. The role of Suketsune was customarily played by an actor of highest rank in the theater.

Toragaishi

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 is a page from an illustrated album, Allegory of Ōiso and Gorō. It is an early example of sumizuri-e (monochrome prints), the figures arranged in a simple and clear composition. The characters Tora of Ōiso and Gorō are from a popular war chronicle, Soga Monogatari (The Tale of the Soga), in which the Soga brothers attempt revenge for the death of their father. The tragic romance between Tora and Jyūrō, Gorō’s older brother, gives emotional depth to the tale.

Three Actors

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 features a central male actor holding a sake container or tea pot, and two onna-gata (male Kabuki actors in female roles) playing the shamisen (three-stringed lute). Although Okumura Masanobu (1686–1764) started his career as a book illustrator and writer of popular fiction, he later began experimenting with various subjects and printing techniques, including the urushi-e (lacquer pictures). Urushi-e was a popular style in the 1720s, in which a coating of glue was applied to certain black areas in a composition to give them a glossy texture. Masanobu included the gourd logo of his publishing company, Okumura-ya, on the bottom center of this picture.

Cry of the Crane

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. These two prints are by Okumura Masanobu (1686–1764). The larger one shows the legendary warrior-monk Benkei fighting another warrior, while the envelope depicts a flying crane. Benkei was the guardian of General Minamoto no Yoshitsune, and his loyalty and superhuman strength made him a popular subject of Kabuki and Noh (masked plays). The Benkei print is an example of tan-e (red prints), a technique using the combination of black ink and red pigment before the development of nishiki-e (full-color prints) in 1765. While there is speculation that the Benkei print may have been distributed in the envelope, Tsuru no hitokoe (Cry of the crane), this has not been confirmed.

The Young Girl Gyokkashi Eimo

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 nishiki-e (full-color print) shows Gyokkashi Eimo, a young girl with a talent for calligraphy, sitting alongside her writing instructor. It is in the small standardized format that Torii Kiyonaga (1752–1815) preferred in his middle years. During this time, he produced realistic portrayals of everyday life in Edo. The natural gestures and slightly disarranged look of the loosely-worn kimono exemplify his candid style.

Sake Cup

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 is from the series Meriyasu Eshō (a selection of images associated with the nagauta song, meriyasu). Meriyasu was a genre of music primarily performed for Kabuki theater, employed to build the atmosphere of a contemplative or lyrical scene. Santō Kyōden (1761–1816), also known as Kitao Masanobu, produced this work during his short career as an ukiyo-e designer between 1780 and 1784. Following his master Kitao Shigemasa, he preferred to draw bijin-ga (pictures of beautiful women) in a graceful and mature style. The rest of his life was chiefly devoted to book illustrating and, more prominently, writing gesaku (popular fiction).