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Ukiyo-e, or ukiyo-ye (浮世絵; Japanese pronunciation: [u.ki.jo.e]; "pictures of the floating world"), is a genre of woodblock prints and paintings that flourished in Japan from the 17th through 19th centuries. Aimed at the prosperous merchant class in the urbanizing Edo period (1603–1867), depictions of beautiful women; kabuki actors and sumo wrestlers; scenes from history and folk tales; travel scenes and landscapes; flora and fauna; and erotica were amongst the popular themes.
Edo (modern Tokyo) was chosen as the seat of government by the military dictatorship in the early 17th century. The merchant class at the bottom of the social order found themselves the greatest beneficiaries of the city's rapid economic growth. Many indulged in the entertainments of kabuki theatre, courtesans, and geisha of the pleasure districts. The term ukiyo ("floating world") came to describe this hedonistic lifestyle. Printed or painted "ukiyo-e" images of this environment emerged in the late 17th century, and were popular with the merchant class who had become wealthy enough that they could afford to decorate their homes with such works.
In the 1670s Moronobu was the earliest success with his paintings and monochromatic prints of beautiful women. Colour prints came gradually—at first, added by hand only for special commissions. By the 1740s, artists such as Masanobu used multiple woodblocks to print areas of colour. From the 1760s the success of Harunobu's full-colour "brocade prints" led to colour as a standard, each print made with ten or more blocks. The peak period in terms of quantity and quality was marked by portraits of beauties and actors by masters such as Kiyonaga, Utamaro, and Sharaku in the late 18th century. This peak was followed in the 19th century by a pair of masters, best remembered for their landscapes: the bold formalist Hokusai, whose Great Wave off Kanagawa is one of the best-known works of Japanese art; and the serene, atmospheric Hiroshige, best remembered for the series The Fifty-three Stations of the Tōkaidō. Following the deaths of these two masters, and against the technological and social modernization that followed the Meiji Restoration of 1868, ukiyo-e production went into steep decline.
Some ukiyo-e artists specialized in making paintings, but most works were prints. Artists rarely carved their own woodblocks for printing; rather, production was divided between the artist, who designed the prints; the carver, who cut the woodblocks; the printer, who inked and pressed the woodblocks onto hand-made paper; and the publisher, who financed, promoted, and distributed the works. As printing was done by hand, printers were able to achieve effects impractical with machines, such as the blending or gradation of colours on the printing block.
Ukiyo-e was central to forming the West's perception of Japanese art in the late 19th century–especially the landscapes of Hokusai and Hiroshige. From the 1870s Japonism became a prominent trend and had a strong influence on the early Impressionists such as Degas, Manet, and Monet; Post-Impressionists such as van Gogh; and Toulouse-Lautrec and other Art Nouveau artists. The 20th century saw a revival in Japanese printmaking: the shin-hanga ("new prints") genre capitalized on Western interest in prints of traditional Japanese scenes, and the sōsaku-hanga ("creative prints") movement promoted individualist works designed, carved, and printed by a single pair of hands. Prints since the late 20th century have continued in an individualist vein and have been made with techniques imported from the West as well, such as screen printing, etching, mezzotint, and mixed media.
- 1 History
- 1.1 Pre-history
- 1.2 Emergence of ukiyo-e (late 17th – early 18th centuries)
- 1.3 Colour prints (mid-18th century)
- 1.4 Peak period (late 18th century)
- 1.5 Late flowering: flora, fauna, and landscapes (19th century)
- 1.6 Decline (late 19th century)
- 1.7 Introduction to the West
- 1.8 Daughter traditions (20th century)
- 2 Style
- 3 Production
- 4 Collection and preservation
- 5 See also
- 6 Notes
- 7 References
- 8 Further reading
- 9 External links
Japanese art since the Heian period (794–1185) had followed two principal paths: the nativist Yamato-e tradition, which focused on Japanese themes painted in soft colours and contours, best known by the works of the Tosa school; and Chinese-inspired ones, such as the monochromatic ink wash painting of Sesshū Tōyō and his disciples. The Kanō school of painting incorporated features of both.
Since antiquity, Japanese art had found patrons in the aristocracy, military governments, and religious authorities. Until the 16th century, the lives of the common people had not been subject to the painters, and even when they did find their way into genre paintings, the works were luxury items made for the ruling samurai and rich merchant classes. Later works appeared by and for townspeople, including inexpensive monochromatic paintings of beautiful women and scenes of the theatre and pleasure districts. The hand-produced nature of these shikomi-e limited the scale of their production, a limit that was soon overcome by genres that turned to mass-produced woodblock printing.
Woodblock printing in Japan traces back to the Hyakumantō Darani in 770 CE. Until the 17th century, such printing was reserved for Buddhist seals and images. Moveable type appeared around 1600, but as the Japanese writing system required about 100 000 type pieces, hand-carving text onto woodblocks was found to be more efficient. In Saga Domain, calligrapher Honami Kōetsu and publisher Suminokura Soan (ja) combined printed text and images in an adaptation of The Tales of Ise (1608) and other books of literature. During the Kan'ei era (1624–1643) illustrated books of folk tales called tanrokubon, or "orange-green books", were the first books to be mass-produced using woodblock printing. Woodblock imagery continued to evolve as illustrations to the kanazōshi genre of tales of hedonistic urban life in the new capital of Edo (modern Tokyo). The rebuilding of Edo following the Great Fire of Meireki in 1657 occasioned a modernization of the city, and the publication of illustrated printed books flourished in the rapidly urbanizing environment.
Following a prolonged period of civil war in the 16th century, Tokugawa Ieyasu (1543–1616) was appointed Shōgun with supreme power over Japan. He consolidated his government in the village of Edo, and required the territorial lords to assemble there with their entourages; the village grew during the Edo period (1603–1867) from a population of 1800 to in excess of a million in the 19th century. Japanese society was divided into four social classes, with the ruling samurai class at the top and the merchant class at the bottom. The merchant class most benefited from the rapidly expanding economy, and their improved lot allowed for leisure that many sought in the pleasure districts—in particular Yoshiwara—and collecting artworks to decorate their homes, which in earlier times had been well beyond their financial means.
The term "ukiyo",[a] which can be translated as "floating world", was homophonous with an ancient Buddhist term signifying "this world of sorrow and grief".[b] The newer term at times was used to mean "erotic" or "stylish", amongst other meanings, and came to describe the hedonistic spirit of the time for the lower classes, celebrated in the novel Ukiyo monogatari ("Tales of the Floating World", c. 1661) by Asai Ryōi:
"... living only for the moment, savouring the moon, the snow, the cherry blossoms, and the maple leaves, singing songs, drinking sake, and diverting oneself just in floating, unconcerned by the prospect of imminent poverty, buoyant and carefree, like a gourd carried along with the river current: this is what we call ukiyo."
Emergence of ukiyo-e (late 17th – early 18th centuries)
The earliest ukiyo-e artists were painters before they were printmakers. Around 1661, hanging scrolls painted with images known as Portraits of Kanbun Beauties gained popularity. The paintings of the Kanbun era era (1661–73), most of which are anonymous, marked the beginnings of ukiyo-e as an independent school. The paintings of Iwasa Matabei (1578–1650) have a great affinity with the ukiyo-e paintings. There is dispute amongst scholars whether Matabei's work itself is ukiyo-e, some claiming he was the genre's founder. At times Matabei has been credited as the artist of the unsigned Hikone screen, a byōbu folding screen considered one of the earliest surviving ukiyo-e works. The screen is in a refined Kanō style that depicted contemporary life, rather than the prescribed subjects of the painterly schools. 
In response to the increasing demand for ukiyo-e works, Hishikawa Moronobu (1618–1694) produced the first ukiyo-e woodblock prints. Moronobu was the first of the book illustrators to achieve such prominence that, by 1672, he could sign his name to his work. Moronobu was a prolific illustrator who worked in a wide variety of genres, and developed an influential style of portraying beautiful women. Most significant, he began to produce illustrations, not for books, but as single-sheet images, which could stand alone or be used as part of a series. The Hishikawa school attracted a large number of followers, as well as imitators such as Sugimura Jihei, and signaled the beginning of the popularization of a new artform.
Torii Kiyonobu I and Kaigetsudō Ando became prominent emulators of Moronobu's style following the master's death, though neither was a member of the Hishikawa school. Both discarded background detail in favour of focus on the human figure—kabuki actors in the yakusha-e of Kiyonobu and the Torii school that followed him, and courtesans in the bijin-ga of Ando and his Kaigetsudō school. Ando and his followers produced a stereotyped female image whose design and pose lent itself to effective mass production, and its popularity created a demand for paintings that other artists and schools took advantage of. The Kaigetsudō school and its popular "Kaigetsudō beauty" ended after Ando's exile over his role in the Ejima-Ikushima scandal of 1714.
Kyoto native Nishikawa Sukenobu (1671–1750) painted technically refined pictures of courtesans. Considered a master of erotic portraits, he was the subject of a government ban in 1722, though it is believed he created works that circulated under different names. Sukenobu spent most of his career in Edo, and his influence was considerable in both the Kantō and Kansai regions. The paintings of Miyagawa Chōshun (1683–1752) portrayed early 18th-century life in delicate colours. Chōshun made no prints. The Miyagawa school he founded in the early-18th century specialized in romantic paintings in a style more refined in line and colour than the Kaigetsudō school. Chōshun allowed greater expressive freedom in his adherents, a group that later included Hokusai.
Portrait of actors
Page from Asakayama E-hon
Ryukyuan Dancer and Musicians
Chōshun, c. 1718
Colour prints (mid-18th century)
Even in the earliest, monochromatic prints and books, colour was added by hand for special commissions. Demand for colour in the early-18th century was met with tan-e[c] prints hand-tinted with orange and sometimes green or yellow. These were followed in the 1720s with a vogue for pink-tinted beni-e[d] and later the lacquer-like ink of the urushi-e. In 1744, the benizuri-e were the first successes in colour printing, using multiple woodblocks—one for each colour, the earliest beni pink and vegetable green.
A great self-promoter, Okumura Masanobu (1686–1764) played a major role during the period of rapid technical development in printing from the late-17th to mid-18th centuries. He established a shop in 1707, and combined elements of the leading contemporary schools in a wide array of genres, though Masanobu himself belonged to no school. Amongst the innovations in his romantic, lyrical images was the introduction of Western-style perspective in the uki-e genre;[e] the long, narrow hashira-e prints; and the combination of graphics and literature in prints that included self-penned haiku poetry.
Ukiyo-e reached a peak in the late 17th century with the advent of full-colour prints, developed after Edo returned to prosperity under Tanuma Okitsugu after a long depression. These popular colour prints came to be called nishiki-e, or "brocade pictures", as their brilliant colours seemed to bear resemblance to imported Chinese Shuchiang brocades, known in Japanese as Shokkō nishiki. The first to emerge were expensive calendar prints, printed with multiple blocks on very fine paper with heavy, opaque inks. These prints had the number of days for each month hidden in the design, and were sent at the New Year as personalized greetings, bearing the name of the patron rather than the artist. The blocks for these prints were later re-used for commercial production, obliterating the patron's name and replacing it with that of the artist.
The delicate, romantic prints of Suzuki Harunobu (1725–1770) were among the first to realize expressive and complex colour designs, printed with up to a dozen separate plates to handle the different colours and half-tones. His restrained, graceful prints invoked the classicism of waka poetry and yamato-e painting. The prolific Harunobu was the dominant ukiyo-e artist of his time. The success of Harunobu's colourful nishiki-e from 1765 on led to a steep decline in demand for the limited palettes of benizuri-e and urushi-e, as well as hand-coloured prints.
A trend against the idealism of the prints of Harunobu and the Torii school grew following Harunobu's death in 1770. Katsukawa Shunshō (1726–1793) and his school produced portraits of kabuki actors with greater fidelity to the actors' actual features than had been the trend. Sometime-collaborators Koryūsai (1735–c. 1790) and Kitao Shigemasa (1739–1820) were prominent depictors of women who also moved ukiyo-e away from the dominance of Harunobu's idealism by focusing on contemporary urban fashions and celebrated real-world courtesans and geisha. The Kitao school that Shigemasa founded was one of the dominant schools of the closing decades of the 18th century.
Couple in a Snowstorm
Arashi Otohachi as Ippon Saemon
Hinazuru of the Chōjiya
Koryūsai, c. 1778–80
Geisha and a servant carrying her koto
Peak period (late 18th century)
While the late 18th century saw hard economic times, ukiyo-e saw a peak in quantity and quality of works, particularly during the Kansei era (1789–1791). The ukiyo-e of the period of the Kansei Reforms brought about a focus on beauty and harmony that collapsed into decadence and disharmony in the next century as the reforms broke down and tensions rose, culminating in the Meiji Restoration of 1868.
Especially in the 1780s, Torii Kiyonaga (1752–1815) of the Torii school depicted traditional ukiyo-e subjects like beauties and urban scenes, which he printed on large sheets of paper, often as multiprint horizontal diptychs or triptychs. His works dispensed with the poetic dreamscapes made by Harunobu, opting instead for realistic depictions of idealized female forms dressed in the latest fashions and posed in scenic locations. He also produced portraits of kabuki actors, in a realistic style that included accompanying musicians and chorus.
Utamaro (c. 1753–1806) made his name in the 1790s with his bijin ōkubi-e ("large-headed pictures of beautiful women") portraits, focusing on the head and upper torso, a style others had previously employed in portraits of kabuki actors. Utamaro experimented with line, colour, and printing techniques to bring out subtle differences in the features, expressions, and backdrops of subjects from a wide variety of class and background. Utamaro's individuated beauties were in sharp contrast to the stereotyped, idealized images that had been the norm. By the end of the decade, especially following the death of his patron Tsutaya Jūzaburō in 1797, Utamaro's prodigious output declined in quality, and he died two years after his imprisonment in 1804 for violating censorship laws.
Appearing suddenly in 1794 and disappearing just as suddenly ten months later, the prints of the enigmatic Sharaku are amongst ukiyo-e's best known. Sharaku produced striking portraits of kabuki actors, introducing a greater level of realism into his prints that emphasized the differences between the actor and the portrayed character. The expressive, contorted faces he depicted contrasted sharply with the serene, mask-like faces more common to artists such as Harunobu or Utamaro. Published by Tsutaya, Sharaku's work found resistance, and in 1795 he disappeared as mysteriously as he had appeared, and his identity is yet unknown. Utagawa Toyokuni (1769–1825) produced kabuki portraits in a style Edo townsfolk found more accessible, emphasizing dramatic postures and avoiding Sharaku's realism.
A consistently high level of quality marked late-18th-century ukiyo-e, but the works of masters of the era are often overshadowed by those of Utamaro and Sharaku. One of Kiyonaga's followers, Chōbunsai Eishi (ja) (1756–1829), abandoned his position of painter for the Shogun Tokugawa Ieharu to take up ukiyo-e design. He brought a refined sense to his portraits of graceful, slender courtesans, and he left behind a number of notable students. With a fine line, Eishōsai Chōki designed portraits of delicate courtesans. As this period drew to a close, the Utagawa school came to dominate ukiyo-e output in the late Edo period.
Edo was the primary centre of ukiyo-e production throughout the Edo period. The Kamigata region, comprising the areas in and around Kyoto and Osaka, was another major centre of production. In contrast to the range of subjects in the Edo prints, those of Kamigata tended to be portraits of kabuki actors. The style of the Kamigata prints was little distinguished from those of Edo until the late 18th century, partly because artists often moved back and forth between the two areas. Colours tend to be softer and pigments thicker in Kamigata prints than in those of Edo.
Cooling on Riverside
Kiyonaga, c. 1785
Three Known Beauties
Utamaro, c. 1793
Sawamura Sojurō III as Ogishi Kurando
Onoe Eisaburo I
Toyokuni, c. 1800
Niwaka Festival in the Licensed Quarters
Chōki, c. 1800
Late flowering: flora, fauna, and landscapes (19th century)
The Tenpō Reforms of 1841–43 sought to suppress outward displays of luxury, including the depiction of courtesans and actors. As a result, many ukiyo-e artists designed travel scenes and pictures of nature, especially birds and flowers. Landscapes had been given limited attention since Moronobu, and they formed an important element in the works of Kiyonaga and Shuncho. It was not until late in the Edo period that landscape came into its own as a genre, especially via the works of Hokusai and Hiroshige. The landscape genre has come to define ukiyo-e for Western audiences, though ukiyo-e had a long history preceding these late-era masters. The Japanese landscape differed from the Western tradition in that it relied more heavily on imagination, composition, and atmosphere than on strict observance of nature.
The self-proclaimed "mad painter" Hokusai (1760–1849) enjoyed a long, varied career. His work is marked by a lack of the sentimentality common to ukiyo-e, and a focus on formalism influenced by Western art. Amongst his accomplishments are his illustrations of Takizawa Bakin's novel Crescent Moon (ja), his series of sketchbooks, the Hokusai Manga, and his popularization the landscape genre with Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji, which includes his best-known print, The Great Wave off Kanagawa. one of the most famous works of Japanese art. In contrast to the work of the older masters, Hokusai's colours were bold, flat, and abstract, and his subject was not the pleasure districts but the lives and environment of the common people at work. Established masters Eisen, Kuniyoshi, and Kunisada also followed Hokusai's steps into landscape prints in the 1830s, producing prints with bold compositions and striking effects.
Though not often given the attention of their better-known forebears, the Utagawa school produced a few masters in this declining period. The prolific Kunisada (1786–1865) had few rivals in the tradition of making portrait prints of courtesans and actors. Of those rivals was Eisen (1790–1848), who was also adept at landscapes. Perhaps the last significant member of this late period, Kuniyoshi (1797–1861) tried his hand at a variety of themes and styles, much as Hokusai had. His historical scenes of warriors in violent combat were popular, especially his series of heroes from the Suikoden (1827–30) and Chūshingura (1847). He was adept at landscapes and satirical scenes—the latter an area rarely explored in the dictatorial atmosphere of the Edo era, a sign of the weakening of the Shogunate in mid-century.
Hiroshige (1797–1858) is considered Hokusai's greatest rival in stature. He specialized in pictures of birds and flowers, and serene landscapes, and is best known for his travel series, such as The Fifty-three Stations of the Tōkaidō and The Sixty-nine Stations of the Kiso Kaidō, the latter a cooperative effort with Eisen. His work was more realistic, subtly coloured, and atmospheric than Hokusai's; nature and the seasons were key elements: mist, rain, snow, and moonlight were prominent parts of his compositions. Hiroshige's followers, including adopted son Hiroshige II and son-in-law Hiroshige III, carried on their master's style of landscapes into the Meiji era.
Decline (late 19th century)
Following the deaths of Hokusai and Hiroshige and the Meiji Restoration of 1868, ukiyo-e suffered a sharp decline in quantity and quality. The rapid Westernization of the Meiji period that followed saw woodblock printing turn its services to journalism, and face competition from photography. Practitioners of pure ukiyo-e became more rare, and tastes turned away from a genre seen as a remnant of an obsolescent era. Artists continued to produce occasional notable works, but by the 1890s the tradition was moribund.
Synthetic pigments imported from Germany began to replace traditional organic ones in the mid-19th century. Many prints from this era made extensive use of a bright red, and were called aka-e ("red pictures"). Artists such as Yoshitoshi (1839–1892) led a trend in the 1860s of gruesome scenes of murders and ghosts, monsters and supernatural beings, and legendary Japanese and Chinese heroes. His One Hundred Aspects of the Moon (1885–92) depicts a variety of fantastic and mundane themes with a moon motif. Kiyochika (1847–1915) is known for his prints documenting the rapid modernization of Tokyo, such as the introduction of railways, and his depictions of Japan's wars with China and with Russia. Earlier a painter of the Kanō school, in the 1870s Chikanobu (1838–1912) turned to prints, particularly of the imperial family and scenes of Western influence on Japanese life in the Meiji period.
Mirror of the Japanese Nobility
From One Hundred Aspects of the Moon
Russo-Japanese Naval Battle at the Entrance of Inchon: The Great Victory of the Japanese Navy—Banzai!
Introduction to the West
Aside from Dutch traders, who had had trading relations dating to the beginning of the Edo period, Westerners paid little notice to Japanese art before the mid-19th century, and when they did they rarely distinguished it from other art from the East. Swedish naturalist Carl Peter Thunberg spent a year in the Dutch trading settlement Dejima, near Nagasaki, and was one of the earliest Westerners to collect Japanese prints. The export of ukiyo-e thereafter slowly grew, and the beginning of the 19th century Dutch merchant-trader Isaac Titsingh's collection drew the attention of connoisseurs of art in Paris.
The arrival in Edo of American Commodore Matthew Perry in 1853 led to the Convention of Kanagawa in 1854, which opened Japan to the outside world after over two centuries of seclusion. Ukiyo-e prints were amongst the items he brought back to the United States. Such prints had appeared in Paris from at least the 1830s, and by the 1850s were numerous; reception was mixed, and even when praised ukiyo-e was generally thought inferior to Western works which emphasized mastery of naturalistic perspective and anatomy. Japanese art drew notice at the International Exhibition of 1867 in Paris, and became fashionable in France and England in the 1870s and 1880s. The prints of Hokusai and Hiroshige played a prominent role in shaping Western perceptions of Japanese art. At the time of their introduction to the West, woodblock printing was the most common mass medium in Japan, and the Japanese considered it of little lasting value.
Early Europeans promoters and scholars of ukiyoe-e and Japanese art included writer Edmond de Goncourt, art critic Philippe Burty (fr)—who coined the term "Japonism"[f]—and art dealer Siegfried Bing, who from 1888 to 1891 published the magazine Artistic Japan (fr) in English, French, and German editions. American Ernest Fenollosa was the earliest Western devotee of Japanese culture, and did much to promote Japanese art—Hokusai was the star of his inaugural exhibition as first curator of Japanese art Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, and in Tokyo in 1898 he curated the first ukiyo-e exhibition in Japan. By the end of the 19th century the popularity of ukiyo-e in the West drove prices beyond the means of most collectors—some such as Degas traded their own paintings for such prints. Tadamasa Hayashi was a prominent Paris-based dealer of respected tastes whose Tokyo office was responsible for evaluating and exporting large quantities of ukiyo-e prints to the West—such quantities that Japanese critics have accused him of siphoning Japan of its national treasure. The drain first went unnoticed in Japan as Japanese artists were immersing themselves in the classical painting techniques of the West.
Japanese art, and particularly ukiyo-e prints, came to influence Western art from the time of the early Impressionists. Early painter-collectors incorporated Japanese themes and compositional techniques into their paintings as early as the 1860s: the patterned wallpapers and rugs in Manet's paintings were inspired by ukiyo-e's patterned kimonos, and Whistler focused his attention on ephemeral elements of nature as in ukiyo-e landscapes. Van Gogh was an avid collector, and painted copies in oil of prints by Hiroshige and Eisen. Degas and Cassatt depicted fleeting, everyday moments in Japanese-influenced compositions and perspectives. Toulouse-Lautrec's lithographs displayed his interest in ukiyo-e not only their flat colours and outlined forms, but also in their subject matter: performers and prostitutes. He signed much of this work with his initials in a circle in imitation of the seals on Japanese prints. Other artists of the time who drew influence from ukiyo-e include Monet, Lafarge, Bonnard, Vuillard, and Guaguin. In the 20th century Imagist poets such as Amy Lowell found inspiration in ukiyo-e prints. Lowell in 1919 published a book of poetry called Pictures of the Floating World on oriental themes or in an oriental style.
Bamboo Yards, Kyōbashi Bridge
Hiroshige, c. 1857–58
Sudden Shower Over Shin-Ohashi Bridge and Atake
Mary Cassatt at the Louvre: The Paintings Gallery
Degas, c. 1879–80
Cassatt, c. 1890–91
Daughter traditions (20th century)
The travel sketchbook became a popular genre beginning about 1905, as the Meiji government promoted travel within Japan to have citizens better know their country. In 1915 publisher Shōzaburō Watanabe introduced the term shin-hanga ("new prints") to describe a style of prints he published that featured traditional Japanese subject matter and were aimed at foreign and upscale Japanese audiences. Prominent artists included Goyō Hashiguchi, called the "Utamaro of the Taishō period" for his manner of depicting women; Shinsui Itō, who brought more modern sensibilities to images of women; and Hasui Kawase, who made modern landscapes. Watanabe also published works by non-Japanese artists, an early success of which was a set of Indian- and Japanese-themed prints in 1916 by the English Charles W. Bartlett (1860–1940). Other publishers followed Watanabe's success, and some shin-hanga artists such as Goyō and Hiroshi Yoshida set up studios to publish their own work.
Artists of the sōsaku-hanga ("creative prints") movement took control of every aspect of the printmaking process—design, carving, and printing were by the same pair of hands. Kanae Yamamoto (1882–1946), then a student at the Tokyo School of Fine Arts, is credited with the birth of this approach. In 1904 he produced Fisherman using woodblock printing, a technique until then frowned upon by the Japanese art establishment as old-fashioned and for its association with commercial mass production. The foundation of the Japanese Woodcut Artists' Association in 1918 marks the beginning of this approach as a movement. The movement favoured individuality in its artists, and as such has no dominant themes or styles. Works ranged from the entirely abstract ones of Kōshirō Onchi (1891–1955) to the traditional figurative depictions of Japanese scenes of Un'ichi Hiratsuka (1895–1997). These artists produced prints not because they hoped to reach a mass audience, but as a creative end in itself, and did not restrict their print media to the woodblock of traditional ukiyo-e.
Prints from the late-20th and 21st centuries have evolved from the concerns of earlier movements, especially the sōsaku-hanga movement's emphasis on individual expression. Screen printing, etching, mezzotint, mixed media, and other Western methods have joined traditional woodcutting amongst the printmaker's techniques.
Taj Mahal, Charles W. Bartlett, 1916
Combing the hair
Goyō Hashiguchi, 1920
Shiba Zōjōji, Hasui Kawase, 1925
Lyric No. 23
Kōshirō Onchi, 1952
Earlier ukiyo-e artists brought with them a sophisticated knowledge of and training in the composition principals of classical Chinese painting; gradually these artists shed the overt Chinese influence to develop a native Japanese idiom. The early ukiyo-e artists have been called "Primitives" in the sense that the print medium was a new challenge to which they adapted these centuries-old techniques—their image designs are not considered "primitive". Many ukiyo-e artists received training from teachers of the Kanō and other painterly schools.
A defining feature of most ukiyo-e prints is a well defined, bold, flat line. The earliest prints were monochromatic, and these lines were the only printed element; even with the advent of colour this characteristic line continued to dominate. Ukiyo-e omposition is noted for the arrangement of forms in flat spaces. Figures in ukiyo-e compositions were typically arranged in a single plane of depth. Attention was drawn to vertical and horizontal relationships, as well as details such as lines, shapes, and patterns such as those on clothing. In colour prints contours of most colour areas are sharply defined, usually by the linework. The aesthetic of flat areas of colour contrasts with the modulated colours expected in Western traditions and with other prominent contemporary traditions in Japanese art patronized by the upper class, such as in the subtle monochrome ink brushstrokes of zenga brush painting or tonal colours of the Kanō school of painting.
The colourful, ostentatious, and complex patterns; tendency to keep up with changing fashions; and tense, dynamic poses and compositions in ukiyo-e works are in striking contrast to many concepts in traditional Japanese aesthetics. Prominent ones include wabi-sabi, which favours of simplicity, evidence of the passage of time, asymmetry, and imperfection; and shibui, which values subtlety, humility, and restraint. Ukiyo-e aesthetics were less at odds with other concepts such as the racy, urbane stylishness of iki.
Themes and genres
Typical subjects were female beauties (bijin-ga), kabuki actors (yakusha-e), and landscapes. The women depicted were most often courtesans and geisha at leisure, and promoted the entertainments to be found in the pleasure districts. The detail with which artists depicted courtesans' fashions and hairstyles allows the prints to be dated with some reliability. Less attention was given to accuracy of the women's physical features, which followed the day's pictorial fashions—the faces stereotyped, the bodies tall and lanky in one generation and petite in another. Portraits of celebrities were much in demand, in particular those from the kabuki and sumo worlds, two of the most popular entertainments of the era. While the landscape has come to define ukiyo-e for many Westerners, the genre flourished relatively late in the form's history.
Ukiyo-e grew out of book illustration—many of Moronobu's earliest single-page prints were originally pages from books he had illustrated. E-hon books of illustrations were popular and continued be an important outlet for ukiyo-e artists. In the late period, Hokusai produced the three-volume One Hundred Views of Mount Fuji and the fifteen-volume Hokusai Manga, the latter a compendium of over 4000 sketches of a wide variety or realistic and fantastic subjects.
Traditional Japanese religions do not consider sex or pornography a moral corruption in the Judaeo-Christian sense, and until the changing morals of the Meiji era led to its suppression, shunga erotic prints were a major genre. Many displayed a high level a draughtsmanship, and often humour, in their explicit depictions of bedroom scenes, voyeurs, and oversized anatomy. Nearly every ukiyo-e master produced shunga at some point in his career.
Scenes from nature have been an important part of Asian art throughout history. Artists have closely studied the correct forms and anatomy of plants and animals, even though depictions of human anatomy remained more fanciful until modern times. Ukiyo-e nature prints are called kachō-e, or "flower-and-bird pictures", though the genre was open to more than just flowers or birds, and the flowers and birds did not necessarily appear together. Hokusai's detailed, precise nature prints are credited with establishing kachō-e as a genre.
The Tenpō Reforms suppressed the depiction of actors and courtesans. Aside from landscapes and kachō-e, artists turned to depictions of historical scenes, such as of ancient warriors or of scenes from legend, literature, and religion. The 11th-century Tale of Genji and the 13th-century Tale of the Heike have been sources of artistic inspiration throughout Japanese history, including in ukiyo-e. Renowned swordsman Miyamoto Musashi (1584–1645) and other warriors were frequent subjects, as were depictions of monsters, the supernatural, and heroes of Japanese and Chinese mythology.
From the 17th to 19th centuries Japan isolated itself from the rest of the world. Trade, primarily with the Dutch and Chinese, was restricted to the island of Dejima near Nagasaki. Outlandish pictures called Nagasaki-e were sold to tourists of the foreigners and their wares. In the mid-19th century, Yokohama became the primary foreign settlement after 1859, from which Western knowledge proliferated in Japan. Especially from 1858 to 1862 Yokohama-e prints documented, with various levels of fact and fancy, the growing community of world denizens with whom the Japanese were now coming in contact; triptychs of scenes of Westerners and their technology and technology were particularly popular.
Specialized prints included surimono, deluxe, limited-edition prints aimed at connoisseurs, of which a five-line kyōka (ja) poem was usually part of the design; and uchiwa-e printed hand fans, which often suffer from having been handled.
Peonies and Canary
Kachō-e by Hokusai, c. 1834
The earliest ukiyo-e artists were painters before they were printmakers. Around 1661 hanging scrolls painted with images known as Portraits of Kanbun Beauties gained popularity. Ukiyo-e artists often made both prints and paintings; some specialized in one or the other. Unrestricted by the technical restraints of printing, a wider range of techniques, pigments, and surfaces were available to the painter. In contrast with previous traditions Ukiyo-e painters favoured bright, sharp colours, and often delineated contours with sumi ink, an effect similar to the linework in prints. Artists painted with pigments made from mineral or organic substances, such as safflower, ground shells, lead, and cinnabar, and later synthetic dyes imported from the West such as Paris Green and Prussian Blue. Silk or paper kakemono hanging scrolls, makimono handscrolls, or byōbu folding screens were the most common surfaces.
Ukiyo-e prints were the works of teams of artisans in several workshops—it was rare for designers to cut their own woodblocks. Labour was divided into four groups: the publisher, who commissioned, promoted, and distributed the prints; the artists, who provided the design image; the woodcarvers, who prepared the woodblocks for printing; and the printers, who made impressions of the woodblocks on paper. Normally only the names of the artist and publisher were credited on the finished print.
Ukiyo-e prints were impressed on hand-made paper manually, rather than by mechanical press as in the West. The artist provided an ink drawing on thin paper, which was pasted to a block of cherry wood[g] and rubbed with oil until the upper layers of paper could be pulled away, leaving a translucent layer of paper that the block-cutter could use as a guide. The block-cutter cut away the non-black areas of the image, leaving raised areas that were inked to leave an impression. The original drawing was destroyed in the process.
Prints were made with blocks face up so the printer could vary pressure for different effects, and watch as paper absorbed the water-based sumi ink, applied quickly in even horizontal strokes. Amongst the printer's tricks were embossing of the image, achieved by pressing an uninked woodblock on the paper to achieve effects, such as the textures of clothing patterns or fishing net. Other effects included burnishing by rubbing with agate to brighten colours; varnishing; overprinting; dusting with metal or mica; and sprays to imitate falling snow.
The ukiyo-e print was a commercial art form, and the publisher played an important role. The prints were mass-marketed, produced in editions of up to 10 000 copies, and promoted by retailers and traveling sellers at prices affordable to prosperous townspeople. In some cases the prints advertised kimono designs by the artist behind the print. In the late Edo period, Edo alone had about 200 publishers. Prints were frequently marketed as part of a series, each print stamped with the series name and the print's number in that series. By the 19th century, series such as Hiroshige's Fifty-three Stations of the Tōkaidō ran to dozens of prints.
A mid-19th-century print by Kunisada depicting the woodblock printing process. An actual print shop would not have been staffed by such beauties.
Colour print production
While colour printing in Japan dates to the 1640s, early ukiyo-e prints were only in black ink. Colour was sometimes added by hand, using a red lead ink in tan-e prints, or later in a pink safflower ink in beni-e prints. Colour printing arrived in books in the 1720s, and in single-sheet prints in the 1740s, with a different block and printing for each colour. Early colours were limited to pink and green; techniques expanded over the following two decades to allow up to five colours. The mid-1760s brought full-colour nishiki-e prints made from ten or more woodblocks. To keep the blocks for each colour aligned correctly registration marks called kentō were placed on one corner and an adjacent side.
Printers used natural colour dyes made from mineral or vegetable sources. The dyes had a translucent quality that allowed a variety of colours to be mixed from primary red, blue, and yellow pigments. In the 18th century Prussian blue became popular, and was particularly prominent in the landscapes of Hokusai and Hiroshige, as was bokashi, where the printer produced gradations of colour or the blending of one colour into another. Cheaper and more consistent synthetic aniline dyes arrived from the West in 1864. The colours were harsher and brighter than traditional pigments, and the effects could be garish. The Meiji government promoted their use as part of broader policies of Westernization.
Collection and preservation
Ukiyo-e artists are referred to in the Japanese style, the surname preceding the given or art name, and well-known artists such as Utamaro and Hokusai by given name alone. Japanese artists sometimes changed their art names through their careers; an unusual case was Hokusai, whose used over a hundred names throughout his seventy-year career.
As they were mass-produced, collecting ukiyo-e prints presents considerations different from the collecting of paintings. There is wide variation in the condition, rarity, cost, and quality of extant prints. Prints may have stains, foxing, wormholes, tears, creases, or dogmarks, the colours may have faded, or they may have been retouched. The colours or composition of prints may have been altered by the carvers in prints that went through multiple editions. When cut after printing they may have been trimmed within the margin. Dealers normally refer to ukiyo-e prints by the names of the standard sizes, most commonly the 34.5-by-22.5-centimetre (13.6 in × 8.9 in) aiban, the 22.5-by-19-centimetre (8.9 in × 7.5 in) chūban, and the 38-by-23-centimetre (15.0 in × 9.1 in) ōban—precise sizes vary, and paper was often trimmed after printing.
The dyes in ukiyo-e prints are susceptible to fading when exposed even to low levels of light; this makes long-term display undesirable. The paper they are printed on deteriorates when it comes in contact with acidic materials, so storage boxes, folders, and mounts must be of neutral pH or alkaline. Prints should be regularly inspected for problems needing treatment, and stored at a relative humidity of 70% or less to prevent fungal discolourations.
The paper and pigments in ukiyo-e paintings are sensitive to light and seasonal changes in humidity. Mounts must be flexible, as the sheets can tear under sharp changes in humidity. In the Edo era the sheets were mounted on long-fibred paper and preserved scrolled up in plain paulownia boxes placed in another lacquer wooden box. In museum settings display times must be limited to prevent deterioration from exposure to light and environmental pollution. Scrolling causes concavities in the paper, and the unrolling and rerolling of the scrolls causes creasing. Ideal relative humidity for scrolls should be kept between 50% and 60%; brittleness results from too dry a level.
Values of prints depend on a variety of factors, including the artist's reputation, condition, rarity, and whether it is an original pressing—even high-quality later printings will fetch a fraction of the valuation of an original. As of 2009 the record price for an ukiyo-e print sold at auction was €389 000 for Sharaku's portrait of kabuki actor Arashi Ryuzo.
Ukiyo-e often went through multiple editions, sometimes with changes made to the blocks in later editions. Editions made from recut woodblocks also circulate, such as legitimate later reproductions, as well as pirate editions and other fakes. Takamizawa Enji (1870–1927), a producer of ukiyo-e reproductions, developed a method of recutting woodblocks to print fresh colour over faded originals, over which he used tobacco ash to make the fresh ink seem aged. These refreshed prints he resold as original printings. Amongst the defrauded collectors was American architect Frank Lloyd Wright, who brought 1500 Takamizawa prints with him from Japan to the US, some of which he had sold before the truth was revealed.
Many of the largest high-quality collections of Ukiyo-e lie outside Japan. Examples entered the collection of the National Library of France in the first half of the 19th century. The British Museum began a collection in 1860 that by the late 20th century numbered 70 000 items. The largest, surpassing 100 000 items, resides in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, begun when Ernest Fenollosa donated his collection in 1912. The first exhibition in Japan of ukiyo-e prints was likely one presented by Kōjirō Matsukata in 1925, who amassed his collection in Paris during World War I and later donated it to the National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo. The largest collection of ukiyo-e in Japan is the 100 000-pieces in the Japan Ukiyo-e Museum in Nagano.
- List of ukiyo-e terms
- Schools of ukiyo-e artists
- Ukiyo-e Ōta Memorial Museum of Art
- Ukiyo-e Society of America
- ukiyo (浮世?) "floating world"
- ukiyo (憂き世?) "world of sorrow"
- Tan is a pigment made from red lead mixed with sulphur and saltpeter.
- Beni is a pigment produced from safflower petals.
- Torii Kiyotada (ja) is said to have made the first uki-e; Masanobu advertised himself as its innovator.
A Layman's Explanation of the Rules of Drawing with a Compass and Ruler introduced Western-style perspective drawing to Japan in the 1734, based on a Dutch text of 1644; Chinese texts on the subject also appeared during the decade.
- Burty coined the term le Japonisme in French in 1872.
- Traditional Japanese woodblocks were cut along the grain, as opposed to the blocks of Western wood engraving, which were cut across the grain. In both methods, the dimensions of the woodblock was limited by the girth of the tree. In the 20th century, plywood became the material of choice for Japanese woodcarvers, as it is cheaper, easier to carve, and less limited in size.
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|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Ukiyo-e.|
- A Guide to the Ukiyo-e Sites of the Internet
- Ukiyo-e Techniques, an interactive collection of videos and animations demonstrating the techniques of master printmaker Keiji Shinohara.
- www.ukiyo-e.org, extensive collection of digitized ukiyo-e images