Ukiyo-e means “pictures of the floating world” and defines an art movement of Japan’s Tokugawa period. This was also the final phase of traditional Japanese history where economic expansion, internal stability and flourishing cultural arts was experienced. Japan feared the potential impact of European colonial expansion as well as the Christian Missionaries on the Japanese culture. Thus the shogun (military governor who’s power exceeded that of the Emperor’s) issued three decrees in the 1630’s and adopted an official policy of national seclusion. Japanese citizens were forbidden from traveling overseas or returning from abroad and foreign trade was restricted to approve only Dutch and Chinese traders sailing to the Nagasaki Seaport. During this period of national isolation, Japanese art acquired a singular national character with few external influences.
Ukiyo-e blended the realistic narratives of emaki, which were Traditional picture scrolls, with influences from decorative arts. The earliest Ukiyo-e works were screen paintings depicting the entertainment districts of modern Tokyo also called “the floating world” of Edo. Scenes and actors from Kabuki theatrical plays, renowned courtesans and prostitutes, and erotica were early subjects.
Ukiyo-e artists quickly embraced the woodblock print. The first master of the Ukiyo-e print was Hishikawa Moronobu. He became a book illustrator who used Chinese woodcut techniques and reached a large audience. Not only did he depict the traditional subject matters but his work also presented the everyday life of ordinary people, including crowds on the streets and peddlers. Japanese woodblock prints were a careful relationship between publisher, artist, block cutter and printer. The publisher financed the production of a print and coordinated the work of the other three partners. The artist supplied the separate drawings for each color. These were pasted onto a woodblock and the negative or white areas were cut away, destroying the original drawing in the process. After the blocks for the prints where cut, printing began. Water based inks and subtle blends were used which required great skill and speed by the printers. Only after all the colors were printed could the artist see the whole design.
Hishikawa Moronobu, Young Man with Two Courtesans, 1682.
The earliest ukiyo-e prints presented scenes from daily life in
a simple narrative manner.
Working within an evolving tradition, several Japanese artists made major contributions to the genre. Okumura Masanobu was among the first artists to move from hand coloring single color woodcuts to two color printing and Suzuki Harunobu introduced full color prints from numerous blocks, each printed in a different color, in 1765.
Contemporaries of Kitagawa Utamaro heralded him as an unparalleled artist in portraying beautiful women. He has been called the supreme poet of the Japanese print. His loving observation of nature and human expression resulted in prints of insects, birds, flowers and woman, possessing great beauty and tenderness, rather than repeating stereotypes of conventional beauty. Utamaro conveyed his subjects feelings based on careful observations of their physical expressions, gestures and emotional states. His warm, yellow and tanned backgrounds emphasized delicate, lights – toned skin. In 1804, Utamaro was jailed for three days, then forced to wear handcuffs for fifty days, after making prints depicting the wife and concubines of deposed military ruler Toyotomi Hideyoshi. This crushed his spirit and his work declined; two years after this torture Utamaro died, at the age of 53.
Kitagawa Utamaro, portrait of a courtesan, late 1700s.Restrained color palette and exqusitely simple composition
characterized Utamaro’s prints of tall, graceful women.
The most renowned and prolific Ukiyo-e artist was Katsushika Hokusai, who produced an estimated 35000 works during seven decades of ceaseless artistic creation. Hokusai’s work spanned the gamut of Ukiyo-e subjects: album prints; genre scenes; historical events; illustrations for novels; landscape series including vies of rivers, mountains, waterfalls, and bridges; nature studies of flowers, birds, shells, and fish; painting on silk; sketchbooks; and privately commissioned prints for special occasions, called surimono. His model books for amateur artists were very popular, as were his caricatures of occupations, customs, and social behavior.
Book illustration was a major form of popular art. Hokusai, like most ukiyo-e artists, began his career illustrating yellow-backs, which were cheap booklets named so because of their cover colors- then moved into illustrations for the major novelists of the day. From age twenty until the year of his death, Hokusai illustrated over 270 titles. These included Hokusai’s Drawing Style in 1819 and Hokusai’s Rough Sketches in 1820. These were produced both in black and white and in three colors.
Japanese book illustrators developed a superb feeling for the kinetic rhythm of a book, using scale, density, texture and dramatic action to achieve a dynamic sequence of images. Single leaf polychrome prints were considered the summit of ukiyo-e art.
Hokusai, who called himself “the old man mad with painting”, produced numerous suites of prints. He was in his seventies when he designed the series Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji. It occupies a special place in Japanese culture and prints of it took the Japanese landscape print to a higher level of expression. Through the grandeur of their conception and their inventive portrayal of their natural forms, the Japanese artists depict these external appearances of nature and symbolically interpret the vital energy forces found in the sea, wind and clouds.
Katsushika Hokusai, South Wind, Clear Dawn, c. 1830 - 32.This woodcut of Mount Fuji struck by early morning light is also called Red Fuji
Ando Hiroshige was the last great master of the Japanese woodcut. A rival Hokusai, he inspired the European impressionists with his brilliant spatial composition and ability to capture the transient moments of the landscape. In the series Fifty- Three Stages of the Tokaido, Hiroshige illustrated the fifty-three way stations along the Eastern Sea Road from Tokyo to Kyoto, capturing subtle nuances of light, atmosphere and season. He not only observed and captured the poetic splendor of nature but related it to the lives of ordinary people as well. This talent could be seen in the brilliant spatial composition of the series Famous places in Edo: A Hundred views. Hiroshige died during 1858.
Ando Hiroshige, Evening Squall at Great Bridge near Atake, c. 1856 - 59.A moment in time is preserved as a transient human event.
European culture was about to have a major influence on Western art and design. In the late 19th century Western Mania for all things Japanese was called Japonisme. Japanese artifacts streamed into Europe and several books on Japanese art and ornament were published during the 1880’s. Although ukiyo-e practioners were considered mere artisans in Japan, they captivated European artists, who drew inspiration from the calligraphic line drawing, abstraction and simplification of natural appearances, flat color and silhouettes, unconventional use of bold black shapes and decorative patterns. Subjects often became emblematic symbols, reduced to graphic interpretations conveying their essence. Landscape and interior environments were frequently presented as suggestive impressions rather than detailed depictions.