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Buddhist Allusions in Floating World Prints

     Ukiyo, the name given to the pleasure-seeking “floating world” of artistic and literary consumption in early modern Japan is also a homophone of a Buddhist expression, translated as “sorrowful world,” which refers to the transient plane of human suffering. During the Edo period (1615-1868), the registration of family histories at local monasteries, a close relationship with the Shinto religion, and the application of Buddhism in schools for commoners (terakoya) ensured that Buddhist art and ritual soaked every layer of Japanese life. Even though the term ukiyo carries associations with Buddhist thought, and despite the fact that Buddhism maintained such an imposing presence in Japan, the Yoshiwara pleasure district might seem an odd place to find Buddhist figures. Still, throughout the Edo period religious beings make numerous appearances in this pocket of material and sexual consumption, often resulting in bizarre collisions with contemporary figures and scenes. Unlike in the Tokugawa-patronized schools of painting, which lauded artistic reiterations of ancient masterpieces, the ukiyo-e artists’ recipe for artistic production embraced witty and, at times, iconoclastic representations of the past.

     Without the patronage they had enjoyed in previous eras, Buddhist temples under the Tokugawa shogunate witnessed a loss of political capital. Nonetheless, the religion continued to thrive with several new sects emerging at this time. Perhaps due to its waning political presence, Buddhism was opened up to popular currents and subjected to witty alterations by ukiyo artists. In terms of setting, the prints range from everyday supernatural, and in terms of audience, they range from pedestrian to cultured elite. Harunobu was indeed one of the most prolific and creative producers of allusive images, but Buddhist subjects are also peppered throughout the works of many other ukiyo artists, including Utagawa Toyohiro, Kitagawa Utamaro, and Utagawa Hiroshige, each one creating a unique cocktail of religious and erotic elements. The culture of ukiyo-e took a diverse range of intersecting cultural materials as its parodic subject, sometimes creating unusual juxtapositions at the expense of Buddhist icons. Because each ukiyo artist was continually digesting the old and creating the new, to pin down a clear distinction between the two proves challenging. Not to mention, many allusive strategies cannot be perfectly defined by commonly used terms like yatsushi or mitate but exist somewhere else on the spectrum entirely. The prints in this exhibition, spanning nearly 100 years of ukiyo-e, will attempt to reflect the variety of visual mechanisms used to stich Buddhist allusions into floating world prints and will examine three prominent strategies in particular: updating ancient tales with contemporary figures, mimicking iconic Buddhist compositions, and dropping Daruma into the hedonistic world of the Yoshiwara. A closer look at these prints can reveal how the marriage of religious lore and popular culture reflects the negotiation of the Japanese cultural heritage in modern society that defined ukiyo-e.