The woodblock was a Chinese import Japan took to her heart. The art existed before moveable type, but arrived late to the island nation. Ukiyo-e artists of the so called floating world flourished during the 17th Century and beyond. The floating world refers to the dominant culture in Edo celebrating beautiful women of the Yoshiwara, kabuki actors, history, and natural landscape.
The most famous artists, Utamaro, Hokusai, Harunobu and Hiroshige created a stir by publishing series dedicated to the most famous courtesans of the day. Tamigeko. Takao. Katsuyama. All sat for woodblock masters and became household names.
There was no better buzz or copy than to sit with a Ukiyo-e master. If a girl was really famous, the woodblocks created a stampede in front of the printer’s store, with no time for ink to dry. They were revered and treasured by men who dreamed of a night with the famous Takao. A sort of Edo Tigerbeat Magazine.
Rivals dared each other to sell out woodblocks faster, the winner declared the most desirable of her day. The brothels loved this free publicity because it drove up the prices of the girls. The woodblocks became collectors items and courtesans rose in the ranks on the strength of her sales alone. It was whispered that a woman who could sell out all her woodblocks, in record time, must be special indeed.
Kabuki actors were also popular topics of woodblocks. They often depicted courtesans themselves in their performances because it was forbidden for a woman to perform kabuki. It was often difficult to tell kabuki actors depicted as courtesans in woodblocks. Can you tell the difference?
A popular form of erotic woodblocks, shunga was enjoyed by men and women during the Edo period. Hokusai published many erotic woodblocks, and the artists supported themselves supplementing their income. Everyone had their stash. It was cheap, widely available and catered to the masses.
“… living only for the moment, savouring the moon, the snow, the cherry blossoms, and the maple leaves, singing songs, drinking sake, and diverting oneself just in floating, unconcerned by the prospect of imminent poverty, buoyant and carefree, like a gourd carried along with the river current: this is what we call ukiyo.” Asai Ryoi