Woodblock printing is one of the oldest publishing techniques. It came to Japan in the 8th century, used primarily in producing existing Buddhist texts and books of Chinese origins. But it’s not until the Late Edo period (17th to 19th century) that woodblock printing achieved the height of its potential as an art technique through the original works of Japanese artists called ukiyo-e.
UKIYO-E: THEMES AND CHARACTERISTICS
Ukiyo-e literally means ‘pictures of the floating world’. Originally, ukiyo was a Buddhist term to express the impermanence of human life. However during the Edo period, it became synonymous to hedonistic pleasures of people who embraced them all the more for their ever changing nature. Also, people at this time enjoyed peace. People were able to read and enjoy leisure time. Ukiyo-e became the most sought-after art form among the commoners and became the most affordable, fastest medium of spreading fashion trends and information.
Ukiyo-e focused on the ordinary things in life. Images usually depict colored narratives and include animals, birds, landscapes and people from lower classes, like courtesans, sumo wrestlers or Kabuki actors. Generally, the artists use exaggerated foreshortening, asymmetry of design, imaginative cropping of figures and areas of flat (unshaded) color.
What follows are some works found at Ukiyo-e.org .It’s a database of over 200,000 prints, grouped according to artists and the time period they were made. It compiled works from the Early Mid-1700’s to the present time.
It used to be that ukiyo-e is produced through a complex collaboration between the publisher, artist, engraver and printer. So it’s the norm for artists to work in a studio during those days. But as time progressed, there are those who chose to create their work from start to finish. This video is an interview with Takuji Hamanaka, showing the traditional technique for woodblock printing:
KITAGAWA UTAMARO (1753- 1806)
He is best known for his idealized portrayal of women in his works. It’s said that no one before him has ever captured a woman’s beauty as deeply as he did. According to Dieter Wanczura, he had experimented with some new techniques to display the flesh tones of his woman portraits in a different and softer manner.
KITAO MASAYOSHI (1764 – 1824)
UTAGAWA HIROSHIGE (1797 – 1858)
He’s dubbed as “the artist of rain, snow and mist”. His most popular series is the Fifty Three Stations of the Tokaido, which catapulted him to contemporary success.
KEISAI EISEN (1790 – 1848)
He’s notable for his works that feature bijin (beautiful women).
KATSUSHIKA HOKUSAI (1760 – 1849)
He’s the greatest master of Japanese landscape woodblock prints. His best work is the series, 36 Views of Mount Fuji.
Among his works, this my favorite. There is that serene contentment on the face of the subject though we know there is much to be desired from being a lowly fisherman. And this mood seemed to be reinforced by the gentle flow of the water in the background.
And of course, his work that made him immortal:
WORKS OF CONTEMPORARY UKIYO-E ARTISTS
Here we can see how the technology has progressed and how Western artistic styles influenced the modern woodblock prints.
I hope you find this collection interesting. Complement this article with Japanese byobu art we featured previously. May this deepen your appreciation of Asian art.
As always, thanks so much for dropping by!
Please see credits for featured image on the body of the article.