Ukiyo-e (Japanese woodblock prints)
Ukiyo-e is an ancient Japanese painting and is popular all over the world. It is produced by the technique like printmaking that carves people and landscapes etc.., on a wooden plate, and puts colors on it and prints on a paper. The wonderful works that can be done by a combination of three artists such as Eshi (painters), Horishi (carvers), and Surishi (printers) gave great influence to the famous artist overseas. This time I would like to introduce about Ukiyo-e.
What is Ukiyo-e? And what is its definition?
Ukiyo-e is said to be a unique painting in Japan. It was originally a genre of paintings established in the Edo period, and it spread as the one to draw the customs at that time. Ukiyo-e is imagined that characters such as popular Oirans and Kabuki actors in the Edo period are mainly drawn, but landscape paintings such as Mt. Fuji and the depicting a figure of a rough wave of the sea are also the genre of Ukiyo-e.
Ukiyo-e have a strong image of a woodblock print, but it is broadly divided into three types, such as illustrations of books, single-sheet prints of woodcut, and Nikuhitsu ukiyo-e (single copy paintings created by brush). It was only Nikuhitsu-ga (painted by hand) until the early 1600s, but it spread all at once with the technique of woodblock print. The paintings were thought that could be seen only by the influential people and the lords of each place, but the woodcut printed Ukiyo-e took root as popular culture.
The unique feature of Ukiyo-e is the pattern. Make the characteristics of people and landscapes simple and specific, and the composition is very bold. Also, there is no expression of shadow at all. For the absence of shadows, Ukiyo-e gives not only a refreshing impression somehow, but also a simple pattern makes you feel the power and the strength of the line and impress the viewer.
History of Ukiyo-e
The scene of war ended and the era of peace arrived during the Edo period in the 17th century. It wasn't in Kyoto where once made a culture, but the townspeople's culture in Edo expanded widely.
The art was for the privileged class and the ruling class until then. Most of the paintings at that time which also became the roots of Ukiyo-e were drawn by Nikuhitsu (handwriting), so these didn't expose to the townspeople. Hishikawa Moronobu who later became the first painter of Ukiyo-e drew his masterpiece “a looking-back beauty”, but this was also written carefully by Nikuhitsu. It was beyond the reach of the ordinary people.
However, Hishikawa Moronobu did not only draw by hand but also handled woodblock prints slowly penetrated since this time, and drew illustrations, landmark paintings, pillow pictures and so on. He was especially good at Ukiyo-e of Yukaku (red-light district) and Theatre Town where mecca of townspeople. It gradually gained popularity as being able to see admired cityscapes with woodcut prints that are sold at low price.
Triggered the activities of Hishikawa Moronobu, Ukiyo-e artists appeared in various districts. Among them, Okumura Masanobu was unusual that he taught himself painting. He mainly drew Bijin-ga (illustrated beautiful woman) and Yakusha-e (actor's portrait), and his representative work was “Shibai kyogen butai kaomise ouki-e” in 1745. The picture boasting the largest size in Ukiyo-e with a 46.8cm width × 68cm length depicts a scene of Kyogen stage. It became a topic with the actors as well as the realistic depiction of the whole interior of the playhouse. Okumura Masanobu was an idea-rich artist as he drew this picture using a perspective method often used in Western paintings at that time.
From this time on, the woodblock print has not only black ink paintings of single color rubbing, but also Beni-e with red pigment adding later, Urushi-e with lacquer to give luster, and Benisuri-e which rub Beni-e to match multiple colors like green appeared. Ukiyo-e increasingly got the value as a work of art by attaching various colors, but a vivid multicolored technique called Azuma-Nishiki-e was invented since around 1765, and the culture of Ukiyo-e leading to the present came out. It was Suzuki Harunobu that appeared at around that time.
Suzuki Harunobu can be said the creator of Nishiki-e and displayed his talent in Bijin-ga making full use of the colorfulness of Nishiki-e. The masterpiece is “Kasamori Osen”. It is a work that drew a daughter of a tea house as a motif, and it is said that the tea house was flooded with people because the daughter modeled by Suzuki Harunobu was so beautiful. You can see that Ukiyo-e was like an advertising media of present-day.
Torii Kiyonaga is also one of the artists who made a name in Bijin-ga. The Bijin-ga that Torii Kiyonaga drew was lots of slender women and different from the girls that Suzuki Harunobu was good at drawing. He gathered support as vividly depicting working women in Edo.
Chobunsai Eishi who supported the world of Ukiyo-e since the latter half of the 18th century is unusual who was from a samurai family. Chobunsai Eishi who studied painting from Torii Kiyonaga as a master and depicted more slender women than his master did, and the genre of “Eishi beauty” was established as time went by. And Kitagawa Utamaro is the one appeared with this flow.
Kitagawa Utamaro was a painter who remained obscure, but he explored a method to close-up the upper body called “Okubi-e” since being found by Tsutaya Juzaburo. It was common sense that the Bijin-ga at the time was to draw the whole body, but all the Bijin-ga drawn by Kitagawa Utamaro were this Okubi-e and gained popularity.
However, despite the women who modeled by Kitagawa Utamaro were unknown, their existence was known as a result of becoming Ukiyo-e, and the Edo Shogunate thought that this was a problem and put restrictions on Kitagawa Utamaro repeatedly. However, the Kitagawa Utamaro's Ukiyo-e became more and more popular, and he gained tremendous support from townspeople.
And the “Taiko gosai rakuto yukan no zu” published in 1804 incurred the Edo Shogunate's wrath, Utamaro Kitagawa was sentenced to handcuffs, and he left this world two years later.
After the death of Kitagawa Utamaro, Ukiyo-e world became more popular with Yakusha-e (actor's portraits) than Bijin-ga, then Toshusai Sharaku appeared. An innovative technique to portrait deformation by emphasizing the expressions of Kabuki actors became a topic and revolutionized the Ukiyo-e world which drew only beautiful women's figures.
Then the Fukei-ga (landscape paintings) became trendy. Unlike Bijin-ga and Yakusha-e, the Fukei-ga positioned as a side stream in Ukiyo-e. Katsushika Hokusai who has a freewheeling style changed it.
Although Hokusai became an artist at the age of 18, he was evaluated after passing the age of 70 because he mainly wrote Fukei-ga. The masterpiece “Thirty-Six views of Mt. Fuji” was published in 1831-1834, and Hokusai was 72 years old already. It became a topic that not only used the perspective drawing but also printed using a blue paint called “Bero-ai (Berlin blue, Persian blue)” that was prevalent at the time. Inspired by a hit of Thirty-Six views of Mt. Fuji, Utagawa Hiroshige and others emerged as authors of Fukei-ga.
Then, these works were exported and became familiar to the artist of the world. For example, Van Gogh published the work that replicated Utagawa Hiroshige's masterpiece・One Hundred Famous Views of Edo “Sudden Shower over Shin-Ohashi Bridge and Atake”, and the musician, Debussy composed “La Mer” that influenced by the Great Wave of Kanagawa of Thirty-Six Views of Mt. Fuji. It is famous that this picture was used on the cover of the score.
Even in the Meiji era, Ukiyo-e still survived, and excellent artists such as Kawanabe Kyosai and Tsukioka Yoshitoshi who followed Utagawa Kuniyoshi who drew fish and animals with his own sense at the end of the Edo period appeared.
This is the one to watch when you watch Ukiyo-e! Tips for enjoying Ukiyo-e
There is various genre of “Ukiyo-e”. The mood of the painting occasionally changes depending on the subject matter.
The themes of Ukiyo-e are “Bijin-ga” mainly depicting women, bromide style “Yakusha-e” depicting Kabuki actor who was popular at the time, “Fukei-ga” makes you immersed in a travel mood, and there are more than 100 themes of works in total such as “Shibai-ga (play painting)” “Shun-ga (erotic picture)” “Hubutsu-e (scenery painting)” etc..
Bijin-ga is relatively suitable for beginners in Ukiyo-e. The beautiful woman of each era like shop's daughters and Oirans were drawn, and it is a pleasure that can see the transition of beauty in each era. And hairstyle, body shape, facial feature, and appearance totally change in each period.
For example, Suzuki Harunobu has relatively large numbers of works of girls' motifs, but since Torii Kiyonaga spot-lighted women working in Edo, and slender women were mostly the subject. Chobunsai Eishi who is the disciple of Torii Kiyonaga drew most women in well-proportioned figure following his master, and it came to be called “Eishi Bijin(beauty)” as time went by.
Fukei-ga is also interesting in terms of comparing. Comparing Ukiyo-e with the current city, Asakusa Temple and Nihonbashi may not be much different from the present, but Ukiyo-e shows that Akasaka about 200 years ago was paulownia field, and Mt. Fuji could be seen from anywhere in the city of Edo. This discovery is also an interesting point.
It is also recommended to compare Yakusha-e which was like an actor's portrait with current Kabuki actors. For example, Ichikawa Danjuro has had big eyes in all generations, and Matsumoto Koshiro has a sculpted feature from a long time ago. When you go to see Kabuki after watching Ukiyo-e, it enhances your enjoyment.
Ukiyo cat? What is the meaning of cats that often appear in Ukiyo-e?
There are various themes in Ukiyo-e, but the animals that often drawn are cats. Especially, the Ukiyo-e artist Utagawa Kuniyoshi who is known as an unprecedented cat lover and always lived with several cats and to be said that he always drew paintings while cuddling cats. A Cat Making Mice Fearful (around 1830), Cat Keiko (around 1841) are known as works full of love for cats.
At the time when Utagawa Kuniyoshi was active, it is an unprecedented cat boom in Edo. As Utagawa Kuniyoshi repeatedly made the works of cats around this time, there were many houses keeping cats at this time, and cats were very familiar to townpeople.
Looking at the composition of a cat drawn in Ukiyo-e, there are not only a daily depiction that sleeps in the corner or is playing but also many works like “Cat Keiko” that draw a cat as a human-like. The one shows its character among them is “Cat forming the character” announced by Utagawa Kuniyoshi around 1841 to 1843. It arranges cats well to make vertical letters of hiragana and displays the letter of fish which is cats favorite. Such playful works are often seen in Ukiyo-e which cats appear, so let's check out at the museums etc.
Let's appreciate Ukiyo-e here! Ukiyo-e Art Museums in Japan
Although the Ukiyo-e assumed the town culture of the Edo period, many works can be seen at museums and other places still now on. Here I will introduce five facilities that are indispensable for appreciating Ukiyo-e in Japan.
●Japan Ukiyo-e Museum
As its name suggests, it is a museum exhibiting the largest Ukiyo-e collections in Japan. It is about 100,000 collections including 1,000 handwritten Ukiyo-e. The “Sakai Collection” collected by the Sakai family who was a merchant of the Matsumoto at the time of the Edo are the main collections, and lots of works of Hishikawa Moronobu who is said to make the roots of Ukiyo-e are stored, as well as Okumura Masanobu and Suzuki Harunobu.
It also boasts the world's largest scale for Ukiyo-e in the 19th century from the late Edo period to the Meiji era, and works of Utagawa Hiroshige, Utagawa Kuniyoshi are also seen, so it is the best place to look back the history of Ukiyo-e from creation to the present.
“Japan Ukiyo-e Museum”
●2206-1, Shinkiri, Shimadachi, Matsumoto-shi, Nagano Prefecture
●Closed on Mondays, and the year-end and New Year Holidays
●Okada Museum of Art
We can follow the formation of Ukiyo-e here since it is displayed from Fukei-ga of Azuchi Momoyama period which is Ukiyo-e's base to Ukiyo-e. The main lineup of Ukiyo-e painters is the diverse member including Kitagawa Utamaro and Katsushika Hokusai.
Pottery and bronze ware from China and Oriental are also displayed as well as from Japan, so compare them together is another point.
“Okada Museum of Art”
●493-1, Kowakudani, Hakonemachi, Ashigarashimo-Gun, Kanagawa Prefecture
●Closed on the year-end and New Year holidays
●Sumida Hokusai Museum
A museum that features in the works of Katsushika Hokusai just opened in 2016. Kamezawa in Sumida Ward with this museum is the place where Katsushika Hokusai was originally born and spent most of his life in this town despite repeatedly moving.
Katsushika Hokusai's masterpiece, Thirty-Six views of Mt. Fuji “The Great Wave off Kanagawa” and plenty of the collections of Peter Mohs known as the collector of Katsushika Hokusai are exhibited. It also has an adjoining library which collects book materials of Ukiyo-e with the focus on Katsushika Hokusai in the museum. It is perfect for knowing the history of Ukiyo-e.
“Sumida Hokusai Museum”
●2-7-2, Kamezawa, Sumida-Ku, Tokyo
※ Hello Dial: 03-5777-8600
●Closed on Mondays, the year-end and New Year holidays
Even overseas? The Ukiyo-e that can be seen outside of Japan
As Van Gogh and Monet once been influenced, Ukiyo-e has been highly regarded overseas, and there are many works exported from Japan to all over the world. I introduce some overseas museums where you can see such Japanese Ukiyo-e.
It is the world's largest museum in which stocked more than 8 million works and books from all over the world. Among many artworks from around the world, there is also Japanese Ukiyo-e stocked, mainly large numbers of Bijin-ga and Yakusha-e.
●Great Russell Street, London, WC1B 3DG
●Closed on 12/24～26、1/1
●The Art Institute of Chicago
The Chicago Art Museum is said to be one of the three biggest art museums in the USA. It is famous for exhibiting “Self-portrait” the masterpiece of Van Gogh and “Water Lilies” by Monet, but many Ukiyo-e prints are exhibited too, and It has a reputation as the best museum when you appreciate Ukiyo-e in the USA.
The lineup focused on Fukei-ga is attractive including Katsushika Hokusai, Utagawa Toyoharu, Kitagawa Utamaro and other big names. It is perfect for knowing the ancient landscape of Japan.
“The Art Institute of Chicago”
●111 S Michigan Ave, Chicago, IL 60603
●10:30-17:00 ※ Thursdays 10:30-20:00
●Closed on 1/1、11/22、12/25
●Honolulu Museum of Art
Honolulu in Hawaii is also popular as a resort area as a paradise of everlasting summer. It is an art museum holding about 50,000 works of art, but it also has the Ukiyo-e picture of Japan.
It has a lot of works of the end of Edo period's authors including Utagawa Hiroshige, and plenty of Fukei-ga are also arranged here. Tours held for the tourists so you can enjoy Ukiyo-e even without knowledge.
“Honolulu Museum of Art”
●900 S Beretania St, Honolulu, HI 96814
●Closed on Mondays
Summary of Ukiyo-e
Ukiyo-e, that was popular with the common people, flourished at the same time as the Edo period. Its profundity and beauty still shine and will never fade away. If you would appreciate Ukiyo-e and touch the unique culture of Japan while you visit Japan, tourism to Japan will be more meaningful.
*The above information was last updated June 8, 2018. For further information, please contact the facilities directly.
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