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VJP title Utamaro print showing



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Hishikawa Moronobu (BD ? - 1694)


Moronobu kanjiHishikawa Moronobu was the son of a well-respected dyer and gold- and silver-thread embroiderer in the village of Hodamura, Awa Province, near Edo Bay. After moving to Edo, Moronobu, who had learned his father's craft, studied both Tosa- and Kanô-style painting. He thus had a solid grounding in both decorative crafts and academic painting, which served him well when he then turned to ukiyo-e. His first known signed and dated works were book illustrations from 1672, although earlier works may yet surface. By the mid-1670s Moronobu had already become the most important ukiyo-e printmaker, a position he maintained until his death. He produced more than 100 illustrated books, perhaps as many as 150, though it is difficult to attribute to him many unsigned examples (for example, the scholar Kiyoshi Shibui established, in 1926, a basis for crediting some of the designs previously given to Moronobu as the work of Sugumura Jihei).Very few of Moronobu's single-sheet prints have survived, and most, if not all, are unsigned. Among these single sheets are erotic album prints, as in the example illustrated below.


Moronobu was not the "founder" of ukiyo-e, as some early scholars surmised. Instead, with Moronobu we find an impressive assimilation of inchoate ukiyo-e designs by previous artists, a consolidation of genre and early ukiyo-e painting and prints. It was Moronobu who created the first truly mature form of ukiyo-e, in a style of great strength and presence that would set the standards for generations of artists who followed. Moronobu's mastery of line has often been cited in assessments of his oeuvre, as well as his harmonious and interactive arrangements of figures, who seem always to serve a dramatic function not usually seen in the work of his predecessors. The design shown here belongs to an unsigned and untitled set of 12 shunga (explicit erotica or "spring pictures," which in Moronobu's day were actually called makura-e, or "pillow pictures"), circa late 1670s - early 1680s. Some of Moronobu's prints are found with hand coloring, but this specimen is a sumi-e (print with black pigment only) in its original, uncolored state. There is something almost elemental in Moronobu's line work and figure placements in black and white, which most often was diminished into more decorative effects when colors were applied by hand. The black and gray lines and solid areas contrast boldly with the white paper to produce a range of tonal values, with emphasis on the shape and movement of the lines and the "positive" values of the white spaces. As in many other designs by Moronobu, the artist was inventive in his use of curvilinear forms juxtaposed against straight diagonals.

Groupings of 12 images had been common for centuries in court and genre paintings. Among the more famous surviving early specimens were the painted single sheets by the master Tosa Mitsunobu (1434-1525). Thus Moronobu's adoption of a grouping of 12 was conventional enough, particularly as such an arrangement afforded a context in which to alter the furnishings, clothing, and design patterns, matched more or less to the months of the year. However, it cannot be said that much shunga strictly adhered to seasonal progressions or 12-step narratives. Moronobu's print qualifies as an abuna-e ("riské print"), a non-explicit erotic design of a type often found as the frontpiece to shunga sets or occasionally interspersed among the explicit sheets. Moronobu's formalism is evident here, with curves and straight lines balanced in near perfect proportion. As for the amorous couple, the seduction has just begun with the loosening of the obi (the woman's sash). Erotic signifiers enhance the scene. For example, the young beauty raises her right sleeve toward her mouth in a gesture of suppressed emotion. Water imagery evokes the woman's sexuality, with feminine or yin erotic symbols in the garden stream behind the lovers and in the waves on the robe of the young gallant, while the flowering plum on the standing screen serves as a metaphor for male or yang sexuality. © 2001 by John Fiorillo


  • Brea, L. and Kondo, E.: Ukiyo-e Prints and Paintings: From the Early Masters to Shunshô. Genoa: Edoardo Chiossone Civic Museum of Oriental Art, 1980, pp. 18-25.
  • Hillier, J.: The Art of the Japanese Book. London: Sotheby's Publications, 1987, Vol. 1, pp. 79-99.
  • Jenkins, D.: Ukyo-e Prints and Paintings - The Primitive Period, 1680-1745. Chicago: The Art Institute of Chicago, 1971, pp. 34-37.
  • Lane, R.: Images from the Floating World: The Japanese Print. New York, 1978, pp. 46-51.
  • Link, H.: Primitive Ukiyo-e from the James A. Michener Collection in the Honolulu Academy of Arts. Honolulu: University Press of Hawaii, 1980, pp. 1-6.
  • Screech, T.: Sex and the Floating World: Erotic Images in Japan, 1700-1820. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1999, pp. 41-42 and 130-149.
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