Artists of the Floating World, Part I

Posted: October 18, 2016 - 15:35 , by Diana Lu
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Written by Josiah Ariyama

Supervised by Dr. Asato Ikeda


A Third Gender: Beautiful Youths in Japanese Prints, exhibited at the ROM from May until November, 2016 offers but a glimpse into the lives of Wakashu, or “young companions” living in Edo period Japan (1603-1868). The exhibition not only features a plethora of great woodblock prints, but exacerbates the viewer’s imaginary journey into this time through the use of film, screens, and sartorial artefacts such as armour, kimono and hair ornaments. 


Detail of a Kimono, 1800-1825: 974.153.2





The viewer will begin their journey being introduced to the primary subject of the exhibition, the Wakashu, and gradually become exposed to the erotic and socially stratified lifestyle of Edo. The viewer hopefully leaves the exhibition recognizing the impact of Victorian-era globalization on our taken-for-granted gender binary, as the exhibit concludes with contemporary gender politics. This blog will discuss but a few of the major movers-and-shakers. Remember these names, and on your next visit to the ROM, see if you can spot a Moronobu, or maybe a Torii. 


We begin in 1661 – the beginning of the Kanbun era (61-73), just sixty years after the Tokugawa Shogunate unified Japan and put an end to almost constant, ubiquitous warfare. After sixty years of relative peace and social harmony, the arts flourished. In particular, art began to move toward the floating world, prominently featuring “Bijin”, or beauties. The Kanbun era marks the painting and artistic representation of beauties as an entire class of art, and sets the stage (no pun intended) for soon-to-emerge artists who would paint the kabuki actors and entertainers in the pleasure districts as the primary subjects of their work. 

"Street Scene in the Yoshiwara" Hishiwara Moronobu, late 1600's: 926.18.58


The “father” of arts in the floating world was Hishikawa Moronobu; not the first, but the first to become a household name. Little is known of Moronobu, other than that he came from across the Edo bay into the rapidly expanding metropolis and mastered various mediums of art from the mid 1660’s until his death in 1694. Moronobu’s artworks are most often of the sumizuri-e variety, meaning they are done in charcoal and will most often feature very hard lines. This has to do with both artistic proclivity and also technical limitations, since innovations and improvements in the woodblock printing method would not occur until half a century after his death. Moronobu’s coloured works are hand-painted, and a large portion of his greatest works are Shunga or “Spring Pictures”; erotic manuals, usually sold in sets of twelve. 

“Sutetakaya Takasuyke as Otomo no Kuronushi, and Arashi Wakano as Kurando nyobo Azechi” Torii Kiyohiru, 1765 : 926.18.17


Eclipsing the work of Moronobu, the Torii school arrived in Edo in 1687, and quickly usurped a monopoly on commercial woodblock printing. The Kanbun beauties provided an audience for a new type of beauty: the celebrity. Onnagata, female impersonators, and popular sex workers became well known through their high profiles in the pleasure districts. The Torii school began with Torii Kiyonobu I and Torii Kiyomasu. Whether brothers in name or blood (yet unknown), their family quickly dominated the kabuki scene in Edo, printing gorgeous signboards and establishing commercial consumption of cheap, mass-produced woodblock prints as souvenirs.


The Torii school works are often indistinguishable from each other, and their presence in between the late 17th and early 18th centuries was so profound, their influence can be seen by practically every artist until mid 1700’s. This period of art can be identified through a mixture of primarily charcoal and semi-colored works featuring a central protagonist. From the 1720’s until the 1770’s emerging artists began to reject the Torii school, leading to more diversity among pictures of the floating world. They made a comeback with Torii Kiyonaga (1752-1815), widely regarded as one of the best Japanese artists to date, although by the zenith of his career, technological and social advances made for a dramatically different style.


 These first few artists of the floating world would pave the way for some truly spectacular, iconic works, constituting some of the greatest Japanese visual art of all time.


In Part: II I will discuss the technological advancements of Harunobu, Utagawa and Utamaro.