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pictures of the floating world

April 11, 2009

[NYTimes] The woodblock prints referred to in Japan as Ukiyo-e, or “pictures of the floating world,” were a spontaneous artistic development independent from officially accepted high art. Their beginnings in the 17th century were innocuous enough. The earliest prints, which dealt with myths relating to Buddhism or tales drawn from ancient history, came about as a cottage industry, in response to demand from the rising urban class of craftsmen and traders that stood just above the bottom tier in the society of feudal Japan.

Ukiyo-e abruptly gained a sharper edge when the enigmatic Sharaku portrayed actors for some 18 months between 1796 and 1798. But it was the next generation, that of Kuniyoshi, which embarked on an undeclared conflict with the authoritarian regime of the shoguns. The images in greatest popular demand dealt with the Kabuki theater, life in the red light district of Edo, now Tokyo, or low-brow novels, and the illustrations could easily be interpreted as a metaphorical critique of the prevalent political and social system.[…]

Politically, however, the potential of Kuniyoshi’s prints as metaphors of the period was limitless. For instance, the inscriptions on the imaginary likeness of a Chinese “military strategist” called Wu Yong designate him as the man who organized the theft of treasures owned by the evil governor of Beijing. The portrait would have called for a spontaneous comparison with real-life characters. A quadrant and a celestial globe, both Western instruments (admittedly based on Middle Eastern models) that had recently reached Japan, indicate that the strategist is making astrological calculations. These would have been read as evidence of Western influence, unwelcome to most, that was creeping into Japan long before Admiral Perry positioned warships in Tokyo Bay in 1853 and forced Japan to open itself to Western trading. (read)

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