Welcome to "A Taste for Ukiyo-e"
Ukiyo-e (浮世絵, literally “pictures of the floating world). is a genre of Japanese woodblock prints (or woodcuts) and paintings produced from the 17th through the present century, featuring motifs of landscapes, legends, tales from history, Noh and Kabuki theater, beautiful women, animals, and the pleasure quarters. Ukiyo-e is the main artistic genre of woodblock printing in Japan; indeed, it has come to be used commonly to denote any type of Japanese block print.
Usually the word ukiyo is literally translated as “floating world” in English, referring to a concept of an transitory world, impermanent, fleeting beauty and a realm of entertainments (Kabuki, courtesans, geisha) removed from the responsibilities of the mundane, everyday world; “pictures of the floating world”; thus, ukiyo-e are considered as a genre unto themselves.
The novelist contemporary to the time period, Asai Ryōi, in his Ukiyo monogatari (浮世物語, Tales of the Floating World, circa. 1661, provides some insight into the concept of the floating world:
... Living only for the moment, turning our full attention to the pleasures of the moon, the snow, the cherry blossoms and the maple leaves; singing songs, drinking wine, diverting ourselves in just floating, floating; ... refusing to be disheartened, like a gourd floating along with the river current: this is what we call the floating world...
The art form rose to great popularity in the metropolitan culture of Edo (Tokyō) during the second half of the 17th century, originating with the single-color works of Hishikawa Moronobu in the 1670s. At first, only India ink was used, then some prints were manually colored with a brush, but in the 18th century Suzuki Harunobu developed the technique of polychrome printing to produce nishiki-e.
Ukiyo-e were affordable because they could be mass-produced. They were mainly meant for townsmen, who were generally not wealthy enough to afford an original painting. The original subject of ukiyo-e was city life, in particular activities and scenes from the entertainment district. Beautiful courtesans, bulky sumo wrestlers, and popular actors would be portrayed while engaged in appealing activities. Later on, landscapes also became popular. Political subjects, and individuals above the lowest strata of society (courtesans, wrestlers and actors) were not sanctioned in these prints but frequently appeared in them. Sex also was not a sanctioned subject, but continually appeared in ukiyo-e shunga prints.