Capturing an Era in Woodblock

THE rise of the Tokugawa Shogunate, early in the 17th century, was an epoch-making event for the island kingdom of Japan. For 264 years this military clan held power, and, during that time, altered the whole structure of society while maintaining internal peace in a land long torn by feudal conflicts.

All worldly affairs were managed by the shoguns, and the emperor was relegated to Kyoto. He was made to become what has been termed a "sacrosanct abstraction," performing his role as a link between his ancestors and subjects in an endless series of elaborate ceremonies.

Determined to circumvent any threat to their power, the shoguns compelled the nobility to settle for part of each year in Edo (now Tokyo), where they were almost hostages - when they went to their country estates their families had to be in Edo. In addition, samurai warriors, who had always lived by the sword, were unemployed and poor in a time of peace.

But it was the advent of peace, and the consequent growth of urban centers, notably Edo, that made possible new elements peculiar to city life, and quite novel to the nation. The merchant class, which was traditionally scorned, grew larger than it had ever been and very prosperous. The city became rich, creating within itself a lively urban culture. This was an entirely new situation in Japan, enjoyed by the residents of Edo who thirsted for entertainment and pleasure. These cravings were soon lavishly s upplied by the artists, actors, writers, and wits who came to live there - some of them samurai.

This was the period which came to be identified with the term "ukiyo-e," a romantic, elusive word meaning "the floating world." Originally part of the religious vocabulary, and intended to describe the earthly experience as transient, shadowy, and sad, it now took on another connotation. Certainly the floating world of ukiyo-e was recognized as transient, but it was also endowed with other attributes that belonged to the day-to-day world of amusement and pleasure. Its essence was captured in the woodbloc k prints that are popular today.

These prints were highly decorative, striking, and often extremely beautiful, suiting the heady atmosphere of the burgeoning city. Wealth and security demanded luxury, but even for the poor there were pleasures to be had in this bustling atmosphere - not only the rich and literate could enjoy the prints. The Kabuki theater, with its popular tales and strolling players, was for everyone too - unlike the No plays which were stylized, abstract, and intellectual. Singers and storytellers were everywhere, and

a popular literature was eagerly patronized.

The intellectual part of the city was small in numbers, but its influence seems to have been widely felt. The books people wanted were romances and poetry, perhaps a literary equivalent of the prints - vigorous expressions of a realistic art. The prints illustrated teahouses, theaters, geishas, and actors, as well as genre scenes - the contemporary scene, in a manner purely indigenous, entirely Japanese. This was astonishing after the earlier constrictions of classical art inspired by China, whose civili zation the Japanese often longed to emulate. The lively world of ukiyo-e was not an aristocratic preserve; everyone could enjoy it. It entertained, charmed, stimulated, and satirized.

A feature of this fresh and vital environment was the avidity with which people read. We are today confronted with a waning readership, with a general lack of recognition that reading is an essential activity; this makes us look rather enviously at this delightful print of the bookseller - quite a popular theme. These women moved about the city with their wares on their backs - a heavy load, but no doubt they had been inured even as little girls to carrying burdens in the form of siblings strapped to the ir backs. They were frequently poets, writing and reciting poetry, and they were aware of the welcome of their customers. Hosts of itinerant vendors thronged Edo's streets, selling myriad objects - fans, parasols, toys, food - everything enticingly displayed. And books.

In the print, "Traveling Woman Bookseller" by Masanobu Okumura, a graceful and robust woman is carrying books, musical scores, "poetry slips," and colored paper. Her wares include, as is indicated on a sign, "A Guide to Writing Waka Poetry," and in her hands she has a writing brush and an open book, ready for calligraphy. At the top of her load is a wooden box holding copies of "The Tale of Genji," Lady Murasaki's classic novel, written centuries earlier, but an enduring favorite.

Poised, handsomely dressed, and presumably a poet herself, the bookseller is shown by herself, without any attempt at background. This is what we now expect from these single-figure prints, but at that time there was no tradition to support such a concept.

For over half a century, Masanobu was the most important woodblock artist in Japan. Entering the field at a young age, he worked many years only in black and white because the art of the colored print had yet to be mastered.

He was not yet 20 when his first work, a series of brilliant and striking women's figures was published in 1701. This immediately made his reputation. Aside from his remarkable artistic versatility, it was clear that he had a flair for the manner in which he placed a single figure in space, without background.

He advanced rapidly in his career, with book illustrations and albums of prints on a wide variety of themes: literary, classical, and artistic. A poet-novelist called Fukaku, well-versed in literature, was then working in the ukiyo-e domain; he was a friend of Masanobu, who is supposed to have gleaned much of his learning from him.

Masanobu himself was clever with technical details, looking ahead to new ideas, aware of the coming developments in multicolored printing, and of the strange new notions of perspective the Europeans were bringing to Japan.

His work was so greatly admired that it was often stolen, and to protect himself he founded his own publishing house, thus achieving a wonderful independence. He was especially praised for the horizontal format of his black and white printing, and for the elegance of his long, narrow compositions. Together with the grace and vitality of his prints, and their humor, whose local pungency amused the people of Edo, his woodblocks were an important contribution to his time. Later, with the coming of men like Hiroshige and Hokusai, who could at once employ the multicolored techniques, he became somewhat overshadowed. Today, he is little known outside of Japan.

In that load of books, poetry, and prints on the back of this stalwart woman vendor, Masanobu Okumura's view of the world of ukiyo-e retains its hold. Because of him, we see a little further into its captivating possibilities.

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