(1542–1616). He set up a new capital at Edo (modern-day Tokyo). From smallbeginnings, Edo grew to be the largest city in the world by the eighteenthcentury. A large section of the population consisted of samurai warriors andtheir families who were forced by law to spend half their time in the capital.This benefited the merchants who served them so that many of theselower-class townsmen became very rich, with money and time to spare.These people had their own tastes and interests,and new kinds ofentertainment and art developed to satisfy their needs. Kabuki theatres andteahouses flourished, as did the Yoshiwara, the official pleasure quarterwhere they could enjoy music, dance, drinking and conversation with thefemale
entertainers, or if they could afford it, sexual pleasures with
,high-class courtesans or prostitutes. This was a world where they couldforget the problems of their everyday life and float along on a stream ofpleasure. It came to be called
, ‘Floating World’, and the paintings andprints depicting these pleasures were called
, ‘Floating World pictures’.In particular the demand for woodblock prints grew because they couldbe produced in large numbers and, typically, cost little more than adouble-helping of noodles. Skilled artists and craftsmen worked fast to keepup with the fashions – to show a celebrity actor in his latest role or a newcourtesan who was causing a sensation in the Yoshiwara. Techniques formaking full-colour prints were perfected in the 1760s and several outstandingartists emerged, such as Kitagawa Utamaro (d.1806), renowned for his
‘beautiful women’, and Tõshûsai Sharaku (fl.1794–95), celebrated for hisactor prints.
Production of a single print was very labour intensive, involving the skills offour different specialists, sometimes described as the ‘
quartet’: theartist, block-cutter, printer and publisher. The artist, like Kuniyoshi,first drewa design in brush and ink. Kuniyoshi’s preliminary drawings are startling intheir spontaneity. Corrections could be made to the drawings by pasting onafresh piece of thin paper. Many examples of Kuniyoshi’s corrected drawingssurvive. Once satisfied with the design, the artist copied it neatly onto verythin paper andit could be shown to the official censor and stamped withhissmall seal of approval.The paper was then pasted face down onto a cherry-wood block, and allthe cutting was done in reverse. The average Japanese print is approximately36 x 25 cm, the size limited by the width of a cherry-tree trunk. This is onereason why artists often produced diptychs (two sheets) or triptychs (threesheets) to give themselves more space. Kuniyoshi made exciting artisticinnovations in the compositions of his triptychs, often linking the threesheetswith one large dynamic motif.Next, the paper was rubbed with oil to make the lines of the designvisible. Now the block-cutter took over, using a variety of knives, chiselsandgouges to carve out the areas between the lines – including all theinscriptions, signatures and seals. This was the first or ‘key’ block, and was
‘Living only for themoment, turning our fullattention to the pleasuresof the moon, the snow,thecherry blossoms andthemaples, singing songs,drinking wine, anddiverting ourselves justinfloating, floating,caringnot a whit forthepoverty staring us intheface, refusing to bedisheartened, like a gourd,floating along with theriver current: This is whatwe call
Tales of the FloatingWorld, c.
triptych36.4 × 25.2 cm (centre sheet)
Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge,given by T.H. Riches 1913(P.3656-R)Photo Fitzwilliam Museum,Cambridge
Kuniyoshi taught himself to draw as a young boy and studied foratimewith Toyokuni I (1769–1825), the leading
artist of the day.Hiscareerhad a slow start until he finally made his breakthrough with thewarrior print series entitled ‘One of the 108 Heroes of the Popular
.1827–30). He went on to design as many as 10,000 differentprints during his working life. One series of 51 designs sold a total of 408,000sheets. Kuniyoshi was also interested in Western techniques of perspectiveand chiaroscuro (shading). He collected hundreds of Western pictures andused Dutch models in some of his series in the 1840s. One of his best friendsand patrons was the poet Umenoya Kakuju, also called Sakichi (1801–65),who shared his sense of humour. Sakichi may well have organised a paintingparty at a restaurant in 1853 at which Kuniyoshi was asked to make a vastwarrior painting spread over the floor. As a climax to the entertainment,hefamously stripped off his cotton kimono and used it to paint in thefinishing touches.
: ‘FLOATING WORLD PICTURES’
At the beginning of the seventeenth century, the warring provinces of Japanwere finally united under one military ruler, the shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu