'Ukiyoe' and Japanese 'shunga'

The world 'ukiyo' which originally referred to earthy life as a 'life of sorrow', later acquired a different meaning - a transitory life of pleasure - around the end of the Middle Ages towards the close of the long-lasting anarchy of the Onin war in the 15th century. 'Ukiyo', in its latter sense, was widely used as a catchword representing anything 'modern' products the latest style were renamed by prefixing the world 'ukiyo' to create new worlds such as 'ukiyogasa' (modern umbrella),eukiyokinchaku' (modern wallet) and 'ukiyogoza' (modern straw carpet). In this way, 'ukiyoe' described a pioneering modern art of the times.

The subjects featured in 'ukiyoe' were the social conditions and custom of the lower classes which were portrayed either in drawings or prints. Orders for hand drawn pictures mostly came from the wealthy segment of society. These customized pieces of art, in the form of screens and hanging scrolls, were virtually inaccessible to the public. Prints, on the other hand, offered an innovative method of art capable of mass production, causing a flood of reproductions, some of which are even available today. For some people, 'ukiyoe' is still a synonym for prints.

'Ukiyoe' wood-block prints in the Japanese style, are broadly classified into single-sheet block prints (independent pictures) and printed books (picture books or illustrated story books). Wood-block printing method existed as early as the Heian era when it was used to produce monochrome Indian ink prints of images of Buddha and sutras.

It is believed that the polychrome wood-block 'ukiyoe' printing method was developed by Harunobu Suzuki, an 'ukiyoe' artist, in 1765 (2nd year of Meiwa). In Edo (modern-day Tokyo) around that time, the production of large and small-sized prints of lunar calendars consisting of 'dai-shiyo' months - 'dai' months with thirty days and 'shiyo' months with twenty-nine days or less, was very popular. Such lunar calendars with different 'dai-sho' months depending on the pear, were used as new year gifts. Escalated competition production better or more ingenious calendars, resulted in the emergence of polychrome prints. Predominant opinion assumes that Harunobu Suzuki, a leading 'ukiyoe' painter at that time, was the inventor of the polychrome wood]block printing method. The resultant wood]block prints were later called 'nishikie' for their chromatic beauty. 'Nishikie' was thus the fruit of a heated production race between calendar makers. The standard paper sizes for single]sheet 'nishikie' were based on the dimensions of 'daihosho' (large-size paper for ceremonial use), the full size of which (39~26cm) while half the large size was medium size, 'chuban' (26~19.5cm) and half the medium size was quarter size (19.5~13cm). 'Nishikie' used vegetable pigments which could be easily extracted from such flowers as safflowers for red, gromwells for indigo blue and gardenias for yellow. Many colorful collections of so-called original 'nishikie' seen in the market today were actually reproduced after the Meiji Era.

'Nishikie' were taken from the designs drawn by 'ukiyoe' artists. These artists, who targeted citizens of lower social standing, left a wide variety of pictures: portraits of beautiful women, actors or deceased popular actors, sumo wrestlers and children, landscapes, pictures of catfish as charms against earthquakes, talismanic pictures to avert smallpox, illustrations on fans, 'shunga' (pornographic pictures) and illustrations for 'enpon' (pornographic books). It was not considered shameful to draw 'shunga' or 'enpon' illustrations, for such images were not illegal despite the fact that official marketing of these publications was subject to some restraint. Society at that time was apparently hungry for entertainment of this kind, and underground publication of 'shunga' and 'enpon' illustrations kept 'ukiyoe' painters unaffected by the anti-luxury rules issued by the Tokugawa regime which sought to limit the number of colors that could be used in a picture or to prohibit 'kirazuri' altogether. these backgrounds allowed 'ukiyoe' painters to indulge their artistic appetite by using the most luxurious materials and dedicating as much time and labor as they wanted to the production. Beside, 'shunga' or 'enpon' production seems to have been more lucrative than other jobs.

"Triptychs of 'ukiyoe' generally brought a wage of one 'bu' (a quarter of a 'ryo'). At a time when one hundred 'mon' could buy seven or eight 'go' (a 'go' equals 0.381 US pint) of rice, one 'bu' was equivalent to one 'shu' (4.765 US gallons) plus five 'go' or two 'sho' (0.477 US gallons of rice). Although this wage was enough to live on, there were not many 'ukiyoe' jobs available. With the exception of renowned artists such as Kuniyoshi and Kunisada, most other 'ukiyoe' painters were not so fortunate as to produce as many as five new versions of 'ukiyoe' a year, for wood-block prints, which required considerable time and labor to produce, could issue only a single new version each year. However, 'ukiyoe' painters had another means of earning livelihood which needless to say is painting 'shunga'. There are many sorts of 'shunga' of different quality, and no 'ukiyoe' painters remained independent of 'shunga' production. Surprisingly, brides of 'daimyous' (feudal lords) and 'hatamotos' (direct vassals of the shogun) often brought a 'waraie' (pornographic picture) series of twelve pictures together with their wedding furniture. There was also the custom that 'daimyous' and 'hatamotos' of each generation put a roll of 'shunga' in the helmet box when they had a suit of armor made. In these cases, 'shungas' reflected people's wishes for the eternal happiness of princes and princesses. 'Ukiyoe' painters owed a stable livelihood to such customs, and, it appears that producing a piece of 'shunga' for a high-ranking client brought them enough money to live on for about six months "

(according to Engyo Mitamura's work "Makurae" for Festivities',)

Thus, 'shunga', in a way, served as sexual guidance for the sons and daughters of wealthy families, and well-experienced artisans including 'ukiyoe' painters found it worthwhile devoting studious effort to their production. This led to the appearance of 'shunga' by first rate artists - a genre unprecedented in the history of world art.

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