March 2008

Early Images of the Floating World: Japanese Paintings, Prints, and Illustrated Books, 1660–1720

March 3–April 5, 2008

This important exhibition, drawn largely from a collection formed in the early part of the twentieth century, explored the origins of ukiyo-e, or pictures of the Floating World, in the second half of the seventeenth century. It featured thirty-seven works, many of them rare and some of them unique, including nine guidebooks to the Yoshiwara district in the northeast sector of Edo.

These guides gave street plans, information about the courtesans available, and advice on the etiquette governing the pursuit of “the path of love” in the quarter. Such books represent a treasure house of information regarding fashion, manners, and customs of the period.

Hishikawa Moronobu (d. 1694), self-described as “handy with a brush,” is generally seen as the father of ukiyo-e. The world he portrayed was robust and fun-loving, and his artistry was such that he established the first school devoted to the genre.  Two of Moronobu’s prints and five of the books he illustrated are in the exhibition.

A number of talented students and followers, including Sugimura Jihei (active 1681–97), are variously represented in the exhibit by illustrated books, hanging scrolls, and complete or almost complete sets of shunga.

The generation that succeeded Moronobu and his circle is also featured, with rare impressions of posterlike prints of courtesans by Kaigetsudo Doshin (active 1715–20), Torii Kiyomasu I (active ca. 1700–1722), and Okumura Masanobu (1686–1754). These are among the most desirable of Japanese prints and seldom appear on the market.

The exhibition concluded with a handscroll depicting street entertainers by Miyagawa Choshun (1683–1753), an artist who regarded himself as heir to Moronobu and whose own artistic descendants include such luminaries as Katsukawa Shunsho (1726–93) and Katsushika Hokusai (1760–1849).