Torii Kiyonobu I 初代鳥居清信 (1664-1729)
By the Light of a Hexagonal Lantern
(Rokkaku andon no hi 六角行灯の火)

Japan, Edo period (1615-1868), early 1700s
Woodblock print; ink on paper
Gift of James A. Michener, 1991

Western connoisseurs of Japanese prints were able to romanticize images of courtesans from the Yoshiwara largely thanks to the way in which those images were disassociated from their erotic context. In his text Japanese Prints: From the Early Masters to the Modern (1959), James Michener (1907-1997) describes this print as a prime example of Torii Kiyonobu I’s mastery of line. In the accompanying illustration, however, he deletes the figure on the left, fearing that an uncensored image would be considered degenerate by readers. Elsewhere in that text, Michener laments, “Kiyonobu dragged the ukiyo-e artists into the… brothels and kept them there for more than a hundred years.”

In a literary review of The Floating World, Richard Lane (1926-2002) rises to Kiyonobu’s defense, pointing out with more than a hint of irony that “[the Yoshiwara] is precisely where ukiyo-e per se began…” What Kiyonobu I intended to produce, Lane reasons, was an image of a prostitute exposing her thigh while her client masturbates, and our appreciation of such imagery as art depends largely on our ability to avoid pathologizing and stigmatizing such topics as prostitution and masturbation.

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