Haran Rikkazu by Tsukimaro Kitigawa, c. 1800
If you follow us on instagram, you'll see from time to time we post pictures of ukiyo-e, or Japanese woodblock prints. Ukiyo-e translates as 'pictures of the floating world' and while this celebrated art form has been around for centuries, it reached its peak in Edo-period Japan in the late 1700s - early 1800s as new technology allowed for expanded production of beautiful, full-color prints.
The artists would chronicle the busy, hedonistic lifestyle of the newly ascendant merchant class and their dedicated pleasure and entertainment districts. Common subjects included portraits of kabuki actors and sumo wrestlers, geishas, scenes from folklore, and travel images on key roads within Japan.
As ikebana was a key part of ordinary Japanese merchant life at the time, there are many prints of beautiful arrangements and practitioners in action.
Satsuki Hototogisu by Koryusai Isoda, c. 1772
Another common subject of the ancient artists was sex! The Edo milieu at the time featured open attitudes towards sexuality and human relationships. There is a whole category of erotic ukiyo-e (which we won't link to here!). However, here is an interesting example of the intersection between sex and ikebana in a work titled Widow Kissing Her Ikebana Teacher.
Widow Kissing Her Ikebana Teacher by Suzuki Harunobu, c. 1765
The arrangements in the ukiyo-e are often quite large and reflect a ceremonial or festive purpose. They also tend to be a rikka-style arrangement that incorporates seven or nine main lines in a consistent pattern. Rikka was the first formal style of ikebana that came out of the Buddhist tradition of placing flowers as offerings in the temples.
Rikka o nagameru san bijin by Kuninao Utagawa, c. 1810
While we are 200+ years past the peak of ukiyo-e, the woodblock prints of that era remain a wonderfully expressive art form and a record of day-to-day life in Edo-era Japan. From sharply contrasting materials (often seen in the clothing of the characters) to the use of negative space, the underlying aesthetics of ukiyo-e provide an inspiration for designers today.
And they provide a fun (and sometimes NSFW) reminder that ikebana has been a critical part of Japanese life for centuries.
For further reading, the Met Museum has a nice writeup on the history and style of ukiyo-e.