Ukiyo-e vs Shin-hanga: differences and similarities between two Japanese movements

Ukiyo-e vs Shin-hanga: differences and similarities between two Japanese movements


Over the centuries, Japanese Art has developed differently from Western Art, bringing contrasting elements and techniques. It covers a wide range of art styles and media, including ancient pottery, sculpture, ink painting and calligraphy on silk and paper, ukiyo-e paintings and woodblock prints, ceramics and origami. It has a long and rich history!

However, at the beginning of the last century, Japanese Art started to get closer to Western taste, when Shin-hanga ("new print") came up. It is considered a revival of the ukiyo-e tradition, which flourished from the 17th through the 19th centuries. But it's prints were geared towards Western tastes and the export market. Like many countries, Japan was going through a period of industrialization, and the Western was closer than ever.

Japan 1930
Life was changing back then in Japan

Both styles are very interesting for home decor, with subjects such as female beauties, kabuki actors, sumo wrestlers, travel scenes, landscapes, flora and fauna. 

Here you have some characteristics, similarities and differences between Ukiyo-e and Shin-hanga - and of course a selection of posters to inspire you to add some Japanese art to your home sweet home.

1. Printed or painted Ukiyo-e works emerged in the late 17th century and were popular with the merchant class, who had become wealthy enough to afford to decorate their homes with them.

Red Sumo Soldier by Kuniyoshi

Red Sumo Soldier, by Utagawa Kuniyoshi, one of the masters of the style
2. But the great print works of Ukiyo-e became fine art almost by accident. They weren't regarded as particularly valuable by the Japanese, which led them to be considered fine art abroad, as they were either discarded — increasing their rarity value — or exported. By the way, the style was central to forming the West's perception of Japanese Art in the late 19th century, especially the landscapes of Hokusai and Hiroshige.

The Great Wave by Hokusai

The Great Wave of Kanagawa by Hokusai is one of the symbols of Ukiyo-e
3. The initiator Shin-hanga and driving force behind the scene was not one of the artists, but a publisher named Watanabe Shozaburo (1885-1962). He gathered a group of impoverished artists around him and gave them commissions. Watanabe had a knack for business and targeted the export market, mainly the USA and the European market. And it worked!

5 White Egrets in the snow by Koson

5 White Egrets in the snow by Ohara Koson, one of the artists that became popular in the Western

4. Shin-hanga maintained the traditional Ukiyo-e collaborative system (hanmoto system) where the artist, carver, printer, and publisher engaged in the division of labour. It was a collaborative work.

Ukiyo-e: colaborative work

There was work for a lot of artists

5. Shin-hanga artists were inspired by European Impressionism. They incorporated Western elements such as the effects of light and the expression of individual moods. The result is that most Shin-hanga prints are distinctly different from traditional Ukiyo-e in their looks, as you can see below:

Ukiyo-e x Shin-hanga
Left: Wave and boat with Mount Fuji by Utagawa Hiroshige, from the Ukiyo-e tradition, is plainer.  
Right: Geisha in the snow storm by Hasui Kawase, from the Shin-hanga movement,
has more effects of light.

6. Another big difference between the Ukiyo-e and Shin-hanga periods of Japanese woodblocks was exclusivity. Rather than mass-produced prints from any artist, the Shin-hanga artists published only a small run to enforce scarcity and create value.

Green Peacock by Koson
Green Peacock, one of the unique Shin-hanga prints made by Ohara Koson

Here at Kuriosis we are great admirers of Japanese Art and are always researching and looking for new motifs to offer to our beloved clients. Especially this week we are releasing a lot of new prints. If you like Japanese Art, don't miss our extensive collection of Ukiyo-e and Shin-hanga posters here.


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