Posted on March 11 2020
"Living only for the moment, savoring the moon, the snow, the cherry blossoms and the maple leaves, singing songs, loving sake, women and poetry, letting oneself drift, buoyant and carefree, like a gourd carried along with the river current."- Asai Ryoi, Tales of the Floating World
An era of peace and prosperity - this is Edo period Japan. Despite strict government control, class divide and isolation from the outside world, Japanese culture, society and economy flourishes like never before. It is a time when traditions like the tea ceremony and Kabuki theater come into shape and visual arts reach new heights, giving birth to ukiyo-e.
Scene of the Temporary Quarters of the New Yoshiwara by Utagawa Kunisada
“Pictures of the floating world” printed with woodblocks or, in simpler words, ukiyo-e is one of, if not the most incredible movement in Japanese art history. It's when the artists focused their attention on Japanese aesthetics and started to narrate the stylish urban lifestyle, beauty and fleeting pleasures of Edo socialites. Quite mystical and intriguing at first glance, the floating world actually referred to life in the pleasure or entertainment districts of the time. What entertainment? Mostly tea-houses, theaters and brothels - that’s where all the action took place.
That’s why the prints often depict erotica, seductive courtesans and popular Kabuki actors, who were all part of Edo entertainment industry. Towards the end of the period, marked by increasing government censorship, some artists branched out into other themes like landscapes, history and folklore.
The Art of Collaboration
Woodblock printing is a technique that originated long ago in China. It works like modern day stamping, except designs are carved on wood blocks, inked manually and pressed onto silk or paper. For centuries it was only used to print religious texts, until artists adopted the technique for art reproduction.
Rather than the technique itself, more interesting is the way artists decided to deal with the labor intensive work. The answer: collaboration. The whole process involved an artist, who designed a print, then handled by an engraver and a printer to make the final product. And the design was often both ordered, marketed and sold to the public by a publisher. It is amazing that the success of a print depended on equal expertise of a whole production team instead of the sole artist.
How come they didn’t use printing machines that were already available at the time across the world? Simple, it was hella expensive. Ukiyo-e prints were popular among the masses and guess what! Despite the massive effort and skill required to produce woodblock prints, they were considered relatively disposable. Many of them rather served as advertisements for local fashion trends, nature sights and products.
And the woodblock technique had just been innovated to achieve multi-colored prints. Artists depended on it to achieve complex color schemes and still keep the costs down for mass production, which could require thousands of reproductions in a country of 30 million inhabitants.
The Schools and the Masters
A unique tradition for Japanese artists is to take on a new name, a tribute to the teacher they learnt under. Sort of like a family lineage. Master to disciple, these artists pass down distinct stylistic traits, certain techniques, and with enough following, it is eventually considered a school. There are dozens of those in the ukiyo-e movement. The four best-known would be Hishikawa, Utagawa, Torii and Katsukawa, which you’ll see under many of the prints reproduced today.
Now, if you'd ask for the name of the most important artist in the movement, no amount of debating would be conclusive. Some would say it’s Hishikawa, the first master, the pioneer, who brought the movement to light. There’s also Harunobu, who produced the first polychrome print and advanced the movement to new heights. And Hokusai comes to mind thanks to the unsurpassed popularity of The Great Wave off Kanagawa, which draws people to learn more about the genre centuries after its time. But there’s many many more.
The answer, therefore, lies in the individual. So, if you’d like to see more of ukiyo-e artists and decide for yourself, here are some of the most stunning prints that we know of:
So What Came of It?
The most surprising outcome of the movement’s success is its influence on Western art. It might not have been appreciated by locals, but it was a total hit in 19th century Europe, which was obsessed with Japanese goods. Some of it inspired the Impressionist artworks of European artists like Edgar Degas and Vincent van Gogh.
"Sudden Shower Over Shin-Ohashi Bridge and Atake" by Hiroshige
(The print that inspired Vincent van Gogh)
In Japan, changing political atmosphere and lack of economic support in the modern era later pushed ukiyo-e to the sidelines. It's kept alive by specialized art institutes and a few active artists.
Today most people get their hands on canvas print reproductions rather than the real deal, which can cost hundreds, thousands and more. There's definitely a modern-day value to ukiyo-e, an appreciation to its aesthetics and reflections of traditional Japanese culture.