Design & ArT Handcrafts

Ukiyo-e – The art of Japanese woodblock prints

hokusai ukiyoe

Wooden ships fighting against the elements on a raging, dark blue ocean. Every moment now one of the waves could overpower the fragile vessels. One wave – larger than any of the others – appears right in front of the ships, towering above and threatening to destroy them. In the distance, small in comparison to the wave: Mount Fuji, the biggest and most famous mountain of Japan. Surely everybody has seen the described scene. It is depicted in “The Great Wave off Kanagawa” by Katsushika Hokusai. But do you know where the original painting is displayed?

hokusai great wave off kanagawa
ukiyo-e.org, Katsushika Hokusai: The Great Wave off Kanagawa

The original of the “Mona Lisa” can be marveled at in the Louvre in Paris, “The Starry Night” by Van Gogh in the MoMA in New York. “Marilyn Monroe” by Andy Warhol is shown to visitors at the Tate Museum in London. The original of “The Great Wave off Kanagawa” can be seen in the Tate Museum, the Metropolitan Museum Of Art and the National Museum of Tokyo. To be precise, the Tate Museum doesn’t have just one, but three copies of the world famous woodblock print.

How is that possible, when most paintings have only one version that can be touted as being the original? Contrary to classical European paintings, there can be no truly “original” woodblock prints, but only an original woodblock. Every ukiyo-e picture therefore is one of many copies, originating from different editions, similar to prints of books. Today we will take you deep into the fascinating world of the art of ukiyo-e and share our passion for this unique art form with you.

History – Ukiyo-e from Edo

japan during edo period
ukiyo-e.org, Toyohara Kunichika: Minobusan Asamairi no Zu: Actors

Translated into English “ukiyo-e” (浮世絵) means “pictures of the floating world”. That describes a certain genre of Japanese paintings and printing techniques. The first ukiyo-e were developed during the early Edo period (1603 to 1868) and flourished especially during the “golden age” of ukiyo-e in the early 19th century. They can therefore be considered the earliest color prints of the world. Today ukiyo-e is one of the best known genres of Japanese art. Similar to modern photographs the woodblock prints often showed a snapshot of everyday life at a certain time and place in the old Japan.

Why were Ukiyo-e this popular?

Edo (which is what Tokyo was called before the Meiji revolution) was the living and beating heart of ukiyo-e culture. Even though several notable artists worked in the Kansai region as well, Edo set the trends the rest of the country would follow, be it the newest kimono fashion to be shown in ukiyo-e prints or a new rising star in the world of kabuki. In Edo there was a prospering middle class of merchants and visitors to the capital. Also nobles (required to spend many months in the capital) started to get interested in ukiyo-e. These people had money to spend, so a huge entertainment industry existed in Edo. Therefore, ukiyo-e prints were being used as advertisements, affordable art to be collected by common people and diverse other purposes.

For the woodblocks themselves mostly cherry wood was used, because its smooth surface and texture make it ideal to print with. The nature of Ukiyo-e of being an object for the mass market with high production numbers made the prints very cheap. In the late Edo period a big print of 39 x 26,5 cm (15,5 x 10,5”) only cost around 500 yen (3 to 4 EUR or USD)! And a smaller one with a size of 33 x 15 cm (13 x 6”) was even cheaper, with a modern cost of around 200 Yen (1,5 EUR or USD). Low prices made ukiyo-e available to many in the middle class and became an important movement in Japanese arts and culture. First editions often had a number of ca. 200 copies, with the most popular prints reaching numbers of above 10.000 copies.

Subgenres of ukiyo-e – commerce and entertainment

hokusai manga funny
Hokusai Manga – Katsushika Hokusai – ukiyo-e.org

As said before, ukiyo-e prints were not only important to art lovers, but often had explicitly commercial intent. Originally a lot of ukiyo-e were used in books: picture books, in novels (complimentary to a scandalous story) or used to illustrate lines of poetry. But with the rising popularity of the artform many prints were also traded in single sheets or even printed as huge posters. The most notable subgenres – which could be seen everywhere in old Edo – were yakusha-e, bijin-ga and fuukei-ga.

Gijinka – the ancestor of Pokemon

Another quite surreal body of work comes from Utagawa Kuniyoshi, who is famous for his gijinka ukiyo-e. Gijinka is what you would call the personification of animals or animal-like characters. He created for example pictures of cats and goldfish, clad in human clothing and obviously human poses, doing very human things. With a bit of fantasy they look like they could be the ancestors of modern Japanese mascots or Pokemon.

kingyo zukushi ukiyoe
Kingyo – Utagawa Kuniyoshi – ukiyo-e.org
kingyo zukushi

Yakusha-e are portraits of kabuki actors, ranging in size from small pictures – something you would buy as a souvenir from a play you liked – to poster sized advertisements hung in front of the theatres to draw people in. Hardcore fans of certain actors would collect prints like there was no tomorrow, similar to the idol culture in modern Japan.

Bijin-ga – beauty on paper

Bijin-ga are one of the other big subgenres of ukiyo-e. Literally “pictures of beautiful women”, they showed portraits of, you guessed it, beautiful and usually very fashionably clothed members of the fair sex. Those woodblock prints could be old forms of fashion magazines or advertisements for a certain establishment or product. Tea houses and brothels of the infamous Yoshiwara red light district would issue prints of their most famous girls, to make sure they were known far and wide. And a bijin-ga of a beautiful woman drinking a certain brand of saké helped the brand’s sales, very similar to (not very subtle) patterns in modern advertising.

geisha ladies
Bijin-ga – Kitagawa Utamaro – ukiyo-e.org
hiroshige ocean tsunami
Awa, Naruto Whirlpools – Utagawa Hiroshige

Fuukei-ga – the origins of travel magazines

Most people who have ever used Instagram or seen a travel catalogue know how it feels to look at stunning pictures of serene mountain lakes or windy beaches. Most of these places you will never visit, but you can’t help but look at the scenery, imagining going there. A similar bittersweet feeling must have swept over many urban inhabitants of Japan 200 years ago, looking at ukiyo-e landscapes. Under the shogunate government travel was severely restricted, and obviously not as easy and safe as it is today. Many ukiyo-e artists served the consequent desire for views of far off places. The resulting “fuukei-ga” (landscape pictures) are some of the most well known ukiyo-e prints today, especially the works of Katsushika Hokusai and Utagawa Hiroshige.

Omocha-e – toys for children

ukiyoe for children
Karuta – ukiyo-e.org
omochae ukiyoe
Kumie – ukiyo-e.org

Children also got their due, thanks to so called “omocha-e” (toy pictures). One theme of omocha-e is kumiage-e, a printed template that can be cut out, put together to a three dimensional model and then played with. Another type of popular omocha-e were monozukushi. These showed many different objects or animals, working as a visual encyclopedia to teach children about the world.

The Ukiyo-e masters

samurai ukiyoe

To talk about great artists in ukiyo-e is somewhat of a simplification. The prints were seldomly produced by one person alone, but the workflow was instead separated in three distinct parts, each with their own “great artist”. The names ascribed to Ukiyo-e like the “Great Wave off Kanagawa” are usually the names of the e-shi, the painter. Undoubtedly important, the e-shi was the mind behind the concept of the print, the main lines (in woodblock printing known as the lines of the “key block”), and often (but not always) the choice of colors.

The carving of the line and color blocks itself was conducted by another master of his craft, the hori-shi or carver. And lastly – but not less important or demanding – the printing had to be done by the sumi-shi, the printer, who applied color to the blocks and printed the pictures on the paper. The person holding the team together was the publisher, who brought in money and connections. Unfortunately the names of the hori-shi (carvers) and sumi-shi (printers) are seldom known. Here we’d like to present to you three of the masters that are known, which are all e-shi (painters).

Katsushika Hokusai

Hokusai was and is presumably the most famous ukiyo-e artist overall. No surprise really, when you look at the impressive range of subjects and quality of his paintings. He reached a proud age of 90 years and designed over 30.000 pictures! His career started at the age of 14. At 19 he became a student of Katsukawa Shunshō and studied the art of ukiyo-e in the Kutsukawa school. Nevertheless he was very open to other styles, implementing elements from other schools like the Kanō school and even European art into his own work. The Katsukawa school apparently wasn’t too fond of Hokusai’s openness, however, which led to him being expelled.

The imperfect perfectionist

Under his peers he was known for being a true eccentric and ukiyo-e fanatic, who was so absorbed in his work that he didn’t care to keep his apartment clean. Allegedly, over the course of his life, he changed his place of residence over 90 times. On one account he even had to move apartments three times in one day.

Art was everything to him, and he never stopped learning and trying new things. Shortly before dying he is supposed to have said: “If heaven had granted me five more years, I could have become a true painter.” At the age 75 he said: “All I have produced before the age of seventy is not worth taking into account. At seventy-three I have learned a little about the real structure of nature, of animals, plants, trees, birds, fishes and insects. In consequence when I am eighty, I shall have made still more progress. At ninety I shall penetrate the mystery of things; at one hundred I shall certainly have reached a marvelous stage; and when I am a hundred and ten, everything I do, be it a dot or a line, will be alive.” Well, that sounds like typical Japanese perfectionism to me.

hokusai ocean
Koshu Kajikazawa – Katsushika Hokusai – ukiyo-e.org

Utagawa Hiroshige

Another one of the most famous ukiyo-e artists, Hiroshige was 37 years younger that Hokusai but still was his rival. His teacher was Utagawa Toyohiro, by whom he started learning the art of painting yakusha-e and bijin-ga. However, today he is mostly known for his breathtaking landscape prints. With an age of just 34 his famous landscape series of “Toto Meisho” (famous places of the eastern capital) was published. At the age of 36 one of his most famous series of landscape prints, the “53 stations of the Tōkaidō” was made. With that he established himself as the most important landscape artist in the world of ukiyo-e.

Hiroshige Blue

He is well known for using a technique called “ichimonji bokashi” (a blue stripe with a gradation) in his prints. That was made possible through the advent of the prussian blue / berlin blue pigment, later often called Hiroshige blue. The use of that pigment is especially fascinating considering it was introduced through international trade during a time when Japan was almost completely shut off from foreign influences.

Hishikawa Moronobu

Although Moronobu is not the inventor of ukiyo-e, he gave the early woodblock printing existing in the 17th century a new form that was used for many generations of artists and artisans. Nevertheless he is much less well known than Hokusai or Hiroshige. Moronobu was primarily an illustrator of books, but eventually his illustrations became more popular than the books themselves. A notable difference to the artists mentioned previously is that during the early years of ukiyo-e, artists like Moronobu only printed in black and white, with occasional hand colored prints.

Ukiyo-e and European impressionists

la japonaise
La Japonaise, 1876 – Claude Monet – Public domain WikiArt

In the mid to late 19th century the latest craze among (especially French) art lovers in Europe, was the so called “Japonisme”. The history of European art during that time cannot be described without knowing about ukiyo-e, because it shook the established art industry in places like Paris to its core. After the opening of Japan in 1853 Japanese art objects and handicrafts like fans, folding screens, ceramics, bronze sculptures and woodblock prints were introduced to a western audience. The aesthetic of Ukiyo-e left a deep impression on the artists of the rising movement of impressionism (pun intended).

tanguy van gogh
Père Tanguy – Vincent van Gogh – Public domain WikiArt

Progressive and (at the time) rebellious artists like Claude Monet, Alfred Emile Stevens or Édouard Manet were taken away by Japanese art. Especially works of Hiroshige, Hokusai and Utamaro had considerable influence. Scenes of everyday life shown in Ukiyo-e, unusual points of view, asymmetric composition, color contrasts and blocks of color with few graduations were so very different from traditional European art. Many artists were inspired by these (to them) unconventional visual elements. The post-impressionistic / expressionistic artist Van Gogh studied Japanese woodblock prints intensely and let them influence his paintings. He tried to paint a lot of ukiyo-e himself, sometimes in his own style, sometimes by simply copying existing woodblock prints.

“All my work is based to some extent on Japanese art…”

Letter from Van Gogh to his brother Theo, sent from Arles, 5th of June 1888
ukiyoe ume hiroshige
Ume – Utagawa Hiroshige – ukiyo-e.org

ukiyoe van gogh
Ume – Vincent van Gogh – Public domain WikiArt

Visit an Ukiyo-e museum

Some museums you should definitely check out, if you’re ever near them.

1. Sumida Hokusai museum in Tokyo

This museum was opened in November 2016 in Tokyo Sumida. Hokusai was born in Sumida and spent most of his life there. The museum presents around 1800 prints of Katsushika Hokusai and the building itself shows some elegant and beautiful architecture.

  • Address: 2 Chome-7-2 Kamezawa, Sumida City, Tokyo
  • Tel: 03-6658-8936
  • Website: https://hokusai-museum.jp
  • Entry fee: 400 YEN
  • Opening hours: 9:30-17:30
  • Closed on: Mondays, national holidays

2. Japan Ukiyo-e museum in Nagano

The Ukiyo-e Museum in Nagano is the biggest ukiyo-e museum in Japan. It has a collection of over 100.000 prints.

  • Address: 2206-1 Shinkiri, Shimadachi, Nagano
  • Tel:0263-47-4440
  • Website: http://www.japan-ukiyoe-museum.com/
  • Entry fee: 500 YEN
  • Opening hours: 10:00-17:00
  • Closed on: Mondays, national holidays

3. Ota Memorial Museum of Art in Tokyo

This museum presents the collection of the late Seizo Ota, with more than 12.000 objects (nikuhitsu-ga and ukiyo-e prints). That makes it one of the biggest private collections of ukiyo-e in the world.

  • Address: 1 Chome-10-10 Jingumae, Shibuya City, Tokyo
  • Tel:03-5777-8600
  • Website: http://www.ukiyoe-ota-muse.jp/eng
  • Entry fee: 1000 YEN
  • Opening hours: 10:30-17:30
  • Closed on: Mondays, national holidays

4. Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam

Here you can marvel at the private ukiyo-e collection of Van Gogh and how he viewed ukiyo-e. This museum is especially well suited to study the connection between the original ukiyo-e prints and Van Gogh’s art. During his lifetime he collected about 400 ukiyo-e prints.

  • Address: Museumplein 4, 1071 DJ Amsterdam
  • Tel: 020 570 52 00
  • Website: https://www.vangoghmuseum.nl/en
  • Entry fee: 19 EUR
  • Opening hours: 9:00-19:00
  • Closed on: Mondays, national holidays

Published: 30.05.2020 | Posted by: Colin

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