The term ukiyo-e, literally “pictures of the floating world,”refers to a genre of Japanese artwork that flourished in the Edo period (1600–1868). As the phrase “floating world” suggests, with its roots in the ephemeral worldview of Buddhism, ukiyo-e captured the fleeting dynamics of contemporary urban life. While being accessible and catering to “common” tastes, the artistic and technical details of these prints show remarkable sophistication, their subjects ranging from portraits of courtesans and actors to classical literature. This nishiki-e, orfull-color print, by Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1798–1861) shows a dance performance from a play. The missing shikake-e (flip sheet) in the lower left would have revealed an actor’s costume change. This print from 1848–54 would have been influenced by the Tenpō Era (1830–43), in which the government censored images of women and actors. Kuniyoshi characteristically found playful ways around these bans, such as depicting courtesans as sparrows or drawing actor portraits as if they were paintings hanging from the wall, as seen on the upper right of this print. The popularity of his dynamic style, as well as his personal wit and humor, reflect the rapid shifting of aesthetic concepts and tastes near the end of the Edo period.
Place: East Asia; Japan
Institution: Library of Congress
Physical description: 1 print : woodcut, color ; 35.6 x 24.5 centimeters (left panel), 35.2 x 24.2 centimeters (right panel)