Monday, March 10, 2008

The concepts and characteristics of ukiyo-e

This week, I'm going to try and summarise what seem to be the subjects and characteristics of the Japanese wood block print - ukiyo-e. I'm finding my way here so contributions and comments by those who know more/better are most welcome.

"Kitagawa Utamaro: Midnight: The Hours of the Rat; Mother and Sleepy Child (JP1278)".
In Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. (October 2006)

I'm going to move from overview through to detail as I work through this project so I'm starting with the big picture.
  • First (today) I'm going to attempt an overview of the subject matter.
  • Then I'm going to use the western conventions of elements and principles of composition to organise new information so that hopefully it makes more sense to me within a more familiar context.
Hopefully by the end that I might have a clearer 'picture' of how a picture works in Japanese Art. Well that's the idea anyway! So, this is what all that means for what I'll be trying to do this week:
  • Monday: Subject Matter - what's the nature of the subject matter
  • Tuesday: Elements - value, colour, shape, form, space, line and texture
  • Wednesday: Principles - balance, emphasis, harmony, movement, pattern, proportion, rhythm, unity, variety
As I want to use these as reference posts during the course of the project I expect I might come back and update and revise these posts as I find out and understand more - so whatever you see expect it to be a bit more like a 'work in progress' than usual! (Plus I managed to hit the 'publish' button before I had the images in place!)

What is ukiyo-e?

Ukiyo-e portray the pleasurable side of the life in Edo (present day Tokyo) and other major cities. They are known as "pictures of the floating world".
Ukiyo, meaning "floating world", refers to the impetuous young culture that bloomed in the urban centers of Edo (modern-day Tokyo), Osaka, and Kyoto that were a world unto themselves. It is an ironic allusion to the homophone term "Sorrowful World" (憂き世), the earthly plane of death and rebirth from which Buddhists sought release.
Wikipedia - ukiyo-e
Ichikawa Monnosuke III in His Dressing Room Conversing with a Colleague, Bunsei era, circa 1822.
Signed: 0ju (by order) Kunisada ga,
Color woodblock print; shikishiba
This view of the Floating World is centered on Yoshiwara, the licensed red-light district of Edo (modern Tokyo). The area's brothels, teahouses and kabuki theatres were frequented by Japan's growing middle class. This particular Floating World culture also arose in other cities such as Osaka and Kyoto.
Wikipedia - ukiyo
Most are woodblock prints. These are first produced as drawings by artists. Craftsmen then create the woodblock print from the original drawing. The woodblock print then permits large numbers of prints to be produced. This made them capable of mass production and hence affordable and available to the townspeople who could not afford original works of art. (In a way they are the forerunner of the modern digital giclee print! Which means that really is nothing new under the sun!!!)

As a result of the scope for mass production, subject matter tends towards the 'popular' - whether or not it was officially sanctioned.

There are two key periods for ukiyo-e:
  • the Edo period, which comprises ukiyo-e from its origins in the 1620s until about 1867; this was largely a period of calm. This commercial form of art developed during that time
  • the Meiji period 1867-1912 which was characterized by the new influences which Japan was subjected to as it opened up its borders to the West.
Museum websites are a great source of information about ukiyo-e
Made from the late seventeenth century to the beginning of the twentieth, Ukiyo-e prints document the urban popular culture of the early modern period and, later, the rapid industrialization of the Meiji era (1868–1912).
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston - Japanese Prints
Woodblock prints of the Edo period most frequently depicted the seductive courtesans and exciting kabuki actors (JP2822) of the urban pleasure districts. With time, their subject matter expanded to include famous romantic vistas and eventually, in the final years of the nineteenth century, dramatic historical events. These pictures could be made in great quantity and featured popular scenes that appealed in particular to the wealthy townspeople of the period.
Woodblock Prints in the Ukiyo-e Style
plus The Floating World of Ukiyo-E (Library of Congress Exhibition) provides an excellent overview, with images, of the major genres of ukiyo-e.

Utagawa Hiroshige.
Viewing Mount Fuji from a Tea House at Zôshigaya
(Zôshigaya Fujimi chaya)
from the series The Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji (Fujisanjûrokkei), 1858-1859.
Color woodblock print, ôban, 15 in. x 10 in.

Prints and Photographs Division (64) (LC-USZC4-8424)

You can get some sort of insight into what Edo was like at the time by visiting this website Edo Japan, A Virtual Tour

Major motifs

When I started to try and work out the motifs in the paintings, it struck me that they essentially split between a focus on the landscape and a focus on people engaging in the everyday or rituals. The natural world and the figurative world if you like. I find that people tend to relate more to one than the other. Personally I lean towards the natural world. Which do you like best?

"Ando Hiroshige: Evening Snow at Kanbara (JP2492)
(from the from his well-known series Fifty-three Stations of the Tokaido)
In Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. (October 2006)

The natural world has
  • landscapes - often with a seasonal slant
  • different views of famous places often done as a series. Even then both artists and printers appreciated the value of producing a series!
    • An example is Hokusai's Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji (富嶽三十六景 Fugaku sanjūrokkei) Thanks to Miki Willa sending me this link, you can see the full set here.
  • pictures of animals and/or flowers at different seasons of the year. A Metropolitan Museum of Art article on Seasonal Imagery in Japanese Art provides more detail.
The figurative world is sometimes conventional, often focuses on popular activities and is sometimes hidden - these were the often the most popular scenes.
  • scenes of everyday life in Edo
  • story-telling, especially history stories or fables
  • musha-e - picture of a warrior (bushi - also known as samurai)
  • yakusha-e - pictures of male actors in kabuki roles in the theatre. (There are no female actors)
  • bijin-ga - pictures of beautiful women , usually courtesans or geisha (girls trained in singing and dancing), but occasionally girls from bourgeois households.
  • shunga - erotic pictures - pictures of courtesans in wash-houses or brothels.
Through most of the Edo period, kabuki in Edo was defined by extravagance and bombast, as exemplified by stark makeup patterns, flashy costumes, fancy keren (stage tricks), and bold mie (poses).
Wikipedia - kabuki
In addition, during the Kaei era, (18481854), at the point at which Japan began to open up to the west, a number of prints recorded historial scenes. For example, a number of them depict the many foreign merchant ships came to Japan. The ukiyo-e of that time therefore reflect the cultural changes taking place.

You can find links to more information about Japanese art and artists in my 'resources for art lovers' sites:


  1. Great article. I will likely borrow some of your info and link back to your article. My blog is focused on one artist from that period, Utagawa Kuniyoshi. I was dragged in by the style and his ability to tell a story through his painting. Great period to study. Thanks!!

    Matt aka Kuniyoshi Cat

    Utagawa Kuniyoshi, Master of Ukiyo-e >>> Ukiyo-e Blog post about Utagawa Kuniyoshi

  2. I hoped this project might identify some more resources - what an interesting blog and project you have.

  3. I have been waiting for this topic.:). Thanks for the comprehensive introduction. If you do not mind I would like to point out to a German printer Eva Pietzker. She is working in japanese technique and has created some remarkable work. The fascination with japanese printing seems unbroken and part of the strong contemporary influence in western living/life style and architecture nowadays.

  4. I hadn't seen the mother and child print before - it's charming and beautifully composed.

    as usual :) a really interesting read Katherine

  5. Good piece of information here Katherine. I haven't exposed myself much to Japanese art. This is the incentive to do so.

  6. This is fascinating stuff and I'm so impressed at the way that you're deconstructing the work, trying to understand the elements. I know that these prints had a tremendous impact on the early modern artists and I've always loved to look at them. One thing that strikes me is your description of how the quality of line is achieved in the original drawing and the fact that craftsman were able to repeat that sensitive line work while carving it out of wood!

  7. I can't decide whether I prefer the natural world ones or the figurative ones!! I love both. There's something intrinsically wonderful about woodblock prints as a medium, whether or not an original drawing by another artist existed as a point of reference---and this is not true, imo, of digitally produced reproductions of artwork, useful though they might be. I would love to see some examples of original drawings in this ukiyo-e genre, with their woodblock progeny alongside! Do you know if there is a source for this?
    And, oh, the 'Praying for Rain' one--I SO identify with it. I've long been a fan of Japanese prints, so I especially appreciate your taking this subject up for study and discussion.

  8. I too love woodblock prints - although I think we maybe ought to be giving more credit to the wood carvers as well as the original artists for the ones which are really excellent. There's an Ando Hiroshige site which does just that.

    Laura - I'm looking around for those that do both - Robyn has given me the name of a more modern artist to follow up. It's also a good subject for a later blog post.


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