Ukiyo-e, if you are not familiar, is a Japanese art form that was popular from 17th century to 19th century Japan. It basically consists of woodblocks used for mass production of pictures. Ukiyo means floating world, and e means picture, so they were literally “pictures of the floating world.” They generally depicted daily life, landscapes, and beautiful people.
Ukiyoe prints are some of the most famous pieces of artwork from Japan. Almost everyone has, at one time, seen Hokusai’s “Big Wave” print featured above. And portraits of the kabuki actors tend to crop up whenever a Japanese themed picture is needed. The sharp contrasts of the images have a distinct style and have probably done a lot to influence manga artists of today.
5. How to pronounce it
Okay, so it may seem like a simple word to pronounce, but it really isn’t. You have to give it a few tries before it really rolls off your tongue. So try it a few times, quickly. If anything it is a great work out for your tongue. Here is a native saying it courtesy of our good friends at Forvo.com:
4. Some Ukiyo-e had Bewbs
Erotica wasn’t as big of a taboo in Japanese art as it was in Western art. Although not often displayed in museums around the world, erotica was a part of ukiyoe art. And these drawings were not just for dirty minded pervs looking to get their kicks. They were actually quite common.
The style of ukiyoe depicting erotica was called shunga. And there are records of everyone from samurai to housewives purchasing and carrying shunga with them. Although not completely openly accepted (despite Western commenters attempting to portray otherwise), it wasn’t completely against any religious morals like in the West.
Almost all of the major ukiyoe artists at one time created some kind of erotica. Even Hakusai, arguably one of the most famous woodblock artists created a series of prints that depicted a story of a woman making love to an octopus, which of course would never see the light of day in the 19th century West, and to be honest is a bit shocking to see in this modern era, even as art.
3. The major periods
Early Ukiyo-e (1670~1740)
Before around the 1670s, art was mostly limited to the nobility who had the kind of money to commission works of art, much like in the West. Patrons usually liked to see pictures of things that reminded them of their wealthy, like wealthy people doing wealthy things.
But, once Japan was united and the Edo period began. The merchant class found themselves making some serious yen, and there started being an interest in art, especially art that depicted every day things. This merchant class had money, but it seems like they weren’t exactly swimming it, so being able to mass-produce artwork with woodblocks, made prints cheaper and more affordable.
These first pieces of work were mostly in the style of what had come before. They characterized by their use of only one color, typically black, and showed limited use of prospective, usually just sticking to 2D. A lot of them focused on the human figure and ideals of beauty.
Beginning of Color Prints (1740~1780s)
Starting in the 1740s, ukiyo-e prints started to be printed with multiple woodblocks each using a different colored ink. This somewhat complicated process led to more flexibility in creating different images. Landscapes and more complicated scenes became more popular.
During this time, due to influence from the West, paintings started to take on more geometrical prospective. The paintings, in particular Masanobu’s works appeared a lot more 3 dimensional, something that we take for granted today, but was actually a major breakthrough back in the day.
The Peak and Popularization of the Genre (1780~1804)
This era brought on some of the greats like Utamaro and Sharaku who placed more emphasis on beauty and harmony. Portraits also began to focus more on the head and torso of someone as opposed to the whole body. Some of the popular woodblocks were of famous kabuki actors and every day beautiful women. A lot of the faces look very similar due to the emphasis on harmony and perfection.
Move toward Landscapes (1804~1868)
Due to the Tenpo Reforms of 1841 to 1843, printmaking of kabuki actors, geisha and courtesans was banned. Artists turned away from people as the subject matter of their prints and focused more on landscapes. This is the area when a lot of the major prints that are famous today were created. Prints like the Big Wave off Kanagawa by Hokusai as well as Hiroshige’s more subdued prints.
There were still scenes of villagers, but there was less emphasis on beauty and perfection of the human form. Artists and the Japanese government didn’t want to focus on decadence. Instead, artists seemed to look for beauty in the every day life and nature that surrounded them.
2. The major artists
Sukenobu was famous for his shunga, or erotic prints. He published at least 30 volumes of erotica. Being based in Kyoto, which was rather rare for ukiyo-e artists of the time, he tended to focus on beautiful women going about their hobbies and daily activities in beautiful kimonos.
Masanobu came to prominence during the second era of ukiyo-e artists when color printing became popular. He is best known for employing geometrical perspective in his prints to give them a depth that hadn’t been seen before. He used multiple colors to give his prints a tremendous amount of detail.
Harunobu was a pupil of Sukenobu and was believed to be the first artist to use multi-colored printing or nishiki-e, sometimes called brocade printing for his works. In 1765, he and a group of poets published a deluxe edition of calendar to be distributed amongst friends. This calendar eventually brought him fame and he went on to create around 600 prints in 6 years before his untimely death at age 45. He was famous for his expressive and creative designs.
Shunsho is famous for creating portraits of kabuki actors that were more true to life. The portraits allowed viewers to not only recognize the character, but also the individual actor playing the part. Although famous for his woodblock prints of kabuki actors, he was also a versatile painter that painted several images of beautiful women, bijin-ga, as well.
Kunisada was a giant in the woodblock industry, producing well over 20,000 prints in his lifetime. He created prints that often did not follow the norms of the day. Just looking at a few of his prints you can see his bold use of color and composition that was completely different from the previous norms.
Kiyonaga painted idealized female forms in the latest fashions. Despite being of humble origins he managed to capture an air of aristocracy. His female forms were said to be fuller and more mature than his predecessors. His prints portrayed scenes very plainly not idolizing them in any way.
Utamaro is said to replace Kiyonaga as the go to guy for bijin okubi-e (large headed pictures of beautiful women). His women tended to be even more fuller and mature. Although they were far from being realistic. Most of the women in his prints were tall and slender, their faces long with small eyes, which were apparently coveted at the time.
Sharaku was a mysterious ukiyo-e artist that appeared in 1795, made prints for about 10 months and disappeared shortly there after. His artwork was met with disapproval at the time, but they are now some of the more iconic images from that time. They showed a lot of expression due to the contorted expressions on the kabuki actors faces.
Hokusai is arguably the most famous ukiyo-e artist. He was famous for prints with sharp contrasts and hard edges. His print the Great Wave off Kanagawa is probably the first image that comes to mind when you think of ukiyo-e prints other than the countless portraits of kabuki actors and beautiful women. He had a personal obsession with Mt. Fuji and painted several views of the mountain in his lifetime along with a lot of other studies of nature.
Hiroshige is famous for his The fifty-three stations of the Tokaido which portrayed the sights he saw on his trip to Kyoto from Edo. During the Edo period, tourism was booming, making his prints very popular. Although he made good use of color his prints tended to be more realistic and with more subtle colors than Hokusai. He was also known to paint flowers and birds, which up until then hadn’t been a popular subject of ukiyo-e prints.
1. Further Resources
I’ve just given you a small glimpse of the massive world of ukiyo-e artwork. If you are interested in checking out some more prints for yourself, I encourage you to visit ukiyo-e.org, which has a massive library of prints from around the world cataloged and named for you to sort through. I consulted it several times for some good prints for this article.
If you’d like to be able to identify some of the great’s artworks, I put together my own short ukiyo-e course on Memrise. There you can learn to identify some prints created by some of the great ukiyo-e artists. There is also a course that walks through Hiroshige’s 53 Stations of Tokaido.
Also if you are interested in doing some further reading, be sure to check out Japan Journeys (JPN), which a nice book that arranges some select ukiyo-e prints to show what some of Japan’s greatest cities used to look like. Andreas Marks also has another beautiful book, Japanese Woodblock Prints: Artists, Publishers and Masterworks: 1680 – 1900 (JPN), if you are looking for something large format to enjoy these prints.
Another small primer of ukiyo-e history is Ukiyo-e: An Introduction to Japanese Woodblock Prints (JPN). It is a short and sweet 96 page intro to the art form.
What do you think of Ukiyo-e?
Who is your favorite? Let me know in the comments.