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Thursday, April 26, 2012

100 Poems By 100 Poets - Ukiyo-e

Yes... the Internet can be a great place to get good solid information as well as be steered completely off in the wrong direction with falsehoods.

Well, I have come not to bury the Internet, but to praise it. Mostly.

I have 21 ukiyo-e, Japanese woodblock prints. Most of mine were actually printed some 150 years ago, and purchased through antique art shoppes in Japan, when I lived there between 1990-1993.

You can tell the art dealers are authentic by the quaint way they spell 'shoppe'.

Okay... that's bad Internet information right there.

Anyhow, despite once having some information on all of my art pieces, the data I was given has become mixed up with each other or lost. Also, I was relying on the English language techniques of a Japanese art dealer or two, who may either have been mistaken about a print they were selling (reading the scrawls on an ukiyo-e is an art-form in itself), or they simply made a mistake in creating data for me - perhaps a mis-translation here and there.   

For example, the art piece up above was apparently from an ukiyo-e series called 100 Songs. While I am now no longer sure that is even an ukiyo-e series, the art piece above is certainly not a part of it.

It is a part of the Hyakunin Isshu emyo( 百人一首) which is a traditional Japanese anthology style of compiling Japanese waka poetry where each contributor writes one poem for the anthology. This one, in English is called is One Hundred Poems By One Hundred Poets.

There are many variations of this ukiyo-e anthology created by many other ukiyo-e artists, as it is a particularly popular theme.

I, of course, had no idea of any of this when I bought the piece... as I was rather curious about the fact the image showed a bare boob. Was this pornography?

No. Not in 2012, 1990 or 1844 when this particular print was first published.

So... here's the particulars about this ukiyo-e.

Drawn by Utagawa Kunisada (1786 - 1865), and signed Kunisada aratame Nidia Toyokuni ga, this is print No. 18 of the Hyakunin Isshu emyo. Kunisada is also known as Toyokuni III. And, the hobby of collecting ukiyo-e gets even more complex for Andrew.

Size-wise, this is considered to be Oban, but my print is exactly: 14-11/16 tall  x 9-3/4 inches wide, and is about four millimeters longer than the other standard oban pieces I have - and thus will not fit into my art collection folder.

The poet is Fujiwara no Toshiyuki ason, the publisher is Kika Kudoh (Sanoya Kihei), and the censor is Fukatsu Ihei (1844).

What is a censor? A censor is a judge or gyôji who were responsible for ensuring a publisher (and thus the artist) followed the rules and restrictions about what could be published in books. How draconian.

While I am still unable to do this, the date of a print can often be determined from the censor seals on it. Actually, this holds true for the prints that were sold publicly - these were the art pieces that had to pass the censors.

The private, limited edition prints such as surimono (art pieces with calendars on them or poems designed for poetry clubs , as well as outlaw prints such as shunga, were evidently condoned - or overlooked - if issued discreetly. More on shunga (erotic ukiyo-e prints) to come shortly in a future blog.

From 1790 until 1876 (which roughly parallels the last half of the best of ukiyo-e, and the period from which prints are most commonly found today), when formal censorship ceased, all woodblock prints had to be examined by official censors, and marked with their seals.

The changing forms of these seals, as they government changed the censorship process, and the seals applied as part of that, allows the dating of prints to a varying degree of accuracy. The general form of the seals almost always gives a rough idea of when the print was produced. During some periods, the details of the censor seals allows dating a print to within a month. But, of course, for dumb gaijin (foreigner) collectors like myself who 'only like pretty picture' and can not read Japanese, we have to resort to help from the Internet. Which is what this whole blog is about.

Let's go back to the ukiyo-e presented above. From what I have learned, the cool looking medium blue in the print is something called azuri-e blue (Berlin blue) and as of the 1830s was a relatively new color printed in ukiyo-e.

As for the poet, Fujiwara no Toshiyuki ason, we are not sure when he was born - perhaps 880AD - and either died in 901 or 907 AD. He was a middle-Hein waka poet and a Japanese nobleman. He was also a member of the Thirty-six Poetry Immortals  - the best of the best of the poets from this early history of Japan.

Toshiyuki was an officer of the Imperial Guard, and a member of the great and influential Fujiwara family who rose into power in the reign of the Emperor Tenchi, and became almost hereditary ministers-of-state. 

For a long period the Emperors chose their wives from this Fujiwara family only, and to this day a large number of the Japanese nobility are sprung from the same stock.

Cool! I have two poems (and ukiyo-e) written by two of the 36 greatest poets of this era. You can learn a bit more about ukiyo-e and other interesting historical facts HERE.

The poem as it is written on the ukiyo-e:

The poem in Japanese:
Sumi no e no
Kishi ni yoru nami
Yoru sa e ya 
Yume no koyoi ji
Hito me yoku ran.

English translation:
The waves are gathered
On the shore of Sumi Bay,
And in the gathered night,
When in dreams I go to you,
I hide from people's eyes.

Beautiful poem. But what has this to do with the image of the mother showing her breast to the hungry, crawling baby - I have absolutely no idea.

It makes me wonder if I have found the correct poem for it! I hope so! I found it at the Virginia educational website: But, why does this poem not come close to being representative of the image on the ukiyo-e?

Hey! If anyone out there can actually read the poem, or confirm the image number of 18, I would be highly appreciative.

Andrew Joseph

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