The World Is Super Flat: Ultimate Art (Part 2 of 3)

The ukiyo-e—translate to “pictures of the floating world” and are woodblock prints—exemplify an infamous Edo-period subversive art form due to their strong association to ukiyo, “floating world,” subject matter and premodern city life. Ippitsussai Bunchô’s (unsigned, due to the erotic subject matter, but attributed to Bunchô) colored woodcut entitled Lovers Spied upon by a Little Boy, circa 1770-80 portrays a highly-contrived, erotic scene delineating an intimate encounter between a girl and her lover as they are watched by a peeping boy. The scene is brought to life by pure-hued paint and most obvious representation.[i] Flatten-pictorial space, reminiscent of manuscript illustration, provides ample viewing ground inviting the viewer to roam freely along the surface of the print, yet the staged setting—noticeable by the seemingly-propped box and umbrella—reminds the audience of the artificiality. A man interrupts his lover, who attempts to play the samisen, insinuating that intimate relations will soon occur; presumably, the artist utilizes the intrinsically-erotic nature of “catching” two lovers in the midst of relations as a tool to stimulate the viewer, as he reinforces the notion of “catching” by juxtaposing a peering boy behind a curtain near the foreground. Direct invitation to such a private matter overtly contradicts Neo-Confucianist principles that are supported during the time of production.

Figure A: Ippitsussai Bunchô, Lovers Spied upon by a Little Boy, Yoshiwara, (c. 1770-80) Color woodcut

Furthermore, the woman appears highly-idealized implying an upper-class air drawn with limited lines on her face, well-groomed hair, and detailed, heavy drapery. Her presentation imitates esteemed women depicted in Japanese antiquity or medieval scrolls. Her heretical display of explicit sexuality disillusions the purported pious upper-class woman as well as dogmatizes the canonical role of the woman, written of in Japanese scrolls.[ii] On the horizon, an allegorical, cherry-blossom tree perches, most-likely, referring to the notorious ukiyo tradition of transplanting robust cherry trees to align the central boulevard of Yoshiwara on the “25th day of the second month for the duration of their blossoming season until the end of the third month,” when they are removed; similarly, Utagawa Toyokuni has also referenced the ceremony in the five-sheet colored woodblock print, entitled View of the Cherry-blossom at Shun Yoshiwara in 1811.[iii] Allusion to the ceremony buttresses the suggestions of a direct correlation between the manicured and the geisha, “art person,” who solely resides in ukiyo neighborhoods.

Figure B: Shanmiao (Zemmyô) and Ŭisang (Gishô)

The ukiyo-e production mimicked the technological advancement of mass manufacture invented during the Edo period. As the merchant-class influence and size had increased, the stipulation for a more universal print distribution arose and moreover an equal necessity for innovative print making. The standard hand-painted illuminated manuscript was not warranted as a proper depiction of urbane life; consequently the ukiyo-e styled print was derived at by appeal to the latest print-making technology unveiling an inexpensive, commercial art form that could be copiously reproduced. Bunchô drew the image; another carved it onto a woodblock (usually with a company’s trademark on the piece); next, the woodblock, coated with ink, was set on print paper—the approach rendered a commodity good, which eventually was sold signally or in sets separately from books.[v] Production-line technique spread the consumption of illustrative art, which formally was only available to the upper class in the form of precious texts.[vi] Officially illegal, Bunchô’s erotic-genre ukiyo-e was indubitably distributed in packs of twelve with an array of petite, fantasized domestic scenes exposing the taboo chimera often purposely omitted from Neo-Confucianism values associated with Edo-period mainstream culture.[vii] In effect, the image, embodying the essence of ukiyo, transformed into a pervasive message fully capable of infiltrating popular culture. Those who could not personally engage in ukiyo were able to actively consume the culture by buying a “souvenir” of the culture in the form of an ukiyo-e print.[viii]

Figure C: Utagawa Toyokuni, Shin-Yoshiwara sakure no keshiku, “Cherry-blossom at Shin-Yoshiwara,” Yoshiwara (Second month 1811) Five-sheet color woodblock.

The ukiyo-e resonated throughout Japan as a loud reminder of the beginning deconstruction of feudal hierarchy. By examining Bunchô’s woodblock cut, one realizes that Edo social and political circumstances angled for appropriation of established visual iconography and style that had been rooted in illuminated manuscripts and scrolls, and that inconspicuous small-scaled images were reliable exchanges for subversive contexts; moreover, mass production mediated a successful medium for pervasive information. In turn, ukiyo survived several tried impositions by relying (to some extent) on small, woodblock prints. As a result ukiyo culture molded a distinctive Japanese identity and continued to prompt self-expression.

[i] Sarah Thompson, “The World of Japanese Prints” from Philadelphia Museum of Art Bulletin, Volume 82, Number 349/350, The World of Japanese Prints (Philadelphia Museum of Art, Winter-Spring 1986), 30. Appendix, Figure A.

[ii] The Tale of Heike translated by Helen Craig McCullough (Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1988), 88-9. Appendix, Figure B

[iii] Clark, “Flowers,” 70-71. Appendix, Figure C.

[v] Thompson, “Japanese Prints,” 4.

[vi] The Tale of Heike, 88.

[vii] Thompson, “Japanese Prints,” 28.

[viii] Ibid., 5.

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About Megan M. Garwood

Megan M. Garwood is a New York City-based editor, art critic, commentator and aesthetician, as well as the Associate Director at Leslie Feely Gallery on 68th and Madison. Her guilty pleasures include metaethics, morality, conceptual art, and Coney Island side shows. Feel free to contact her via email at
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