Ukiyo-e, the floating world of Japanese genre art, began in the sixteenth century. It was this period that first saw the rise of popular art and culture as a decisive factor in Japanese civilization.
What did the expression "floating world" actually mean to people at the time? A single term that expresses the self-concept of an age is rare, but ukiyo-e is such a term. Originally derived from a Buddhist expression meaning "this transient, unreliable, even painful world," for the newly liberated townsmen and women of seventeenth century Edo "floating world" soon lost its connotations of the illusory and took on hedonistic implications. It came to denote the modern, stylish world of pleasure, in which easy women and handsome actors were the celebrities of the day. With the rebirth of Edo after the devastating Meireki fire of 1657, pictorial representations of this floating world became known as ukiyo-e (e being the Japanese word for picture). The first professional atelier specializing in these images was formed by Hishikawa Moronobu (d. 1694), an artist descended from a family of fabric decorators and embroiderers, who from 1672 produced paintings, screens, and printed illustrated books to satisfy an emerging market. Separate prints soon evolved, and by about 1700, a thriving new graphic art form had been established.
It is this industry that was the focus of our Spring 2006 exhibition. Twenty-five works were included, featuring paintings and screens, early black-and-white prints (some with hand-applied color), and then later counterparts printed in full-color. All major developments that took place during the century were chronicled, concluding with works from the "golden decade" at the end of the century by Kitagawa Utamaro and Toshusai Sharaku, respectively the most famous beauty print and actor print artists of their time.