'ukiyo-e" - the japanese word for 18th- and 19th-century woodblock prints made for the amusement of ordinary people - have long been recognized as art. But these old prints were actually commercial ventures aimed at wide circulation, rather than fine-art artifacts for wealthy patrons. The rise of printing enabled this production of inexpensive images. In their depictions of everyday life ("ukiyo-e" meaning "images from the floating world"), they were a sort of "pop art" of their day.
Most books and exhibitions of ukiyo-e suggest that the world they depicted was entirely adult: images of beautiful women, of kabuki actors, of wrestlers, and of landscapes populated by travelers, shellfish gatherers, peasants, rice-farmers. Rarely does one see a mother with a baby or a woman catching fireflies with her son.
This evident lack of children depicted in ukiyo-e may be misleading, resulting from the selective interests of collectors. A revision is called for by a traveling exhibition organized by the Japan Foundation and the Kumon Institute of Education in Osaka. "Children Represented in Ukiyo-e: Japanese Children in the 18th-19th Centuries " is now at the Maison de la Culture du Japon a Paris (through March 13). It moves to Edinburgh April 3 to May 16. The show's 164 prints open your eyes not only to the interest of Edo artists in children, but also to the child culture of the period.
Children are shown as infant objects of affection and celebration (they were "one of the gods until the age of 7"); as the protagonists in games and play; as the customers of one kind of printed art, the "toy pictures" or "omocha-e," which they could cut out and paste; and as schoolchildren.
The print shown here amusingly depicts children being taught calligraphy (with varying degrees of success). Reading, writing, and arithmetic were the rudiments of the elementary education available to children of all classes, though not yet compulsory.