Ukiyo-e and Woodblock Printing: Japanese Magnificent Works of Art

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 PRODUCTION

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:

 

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.

UKIYO-E ARTISTS

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.

Woodblock Printing and Ukiyo-e themindcatalog.com
Hitomoto of the Monji-ro, 1799
Vertical ôban; 38.4 x 25.1 cm (15 1/8 x 9 7/8 in.)
Woodblock print (nishiki-e); ink and color on paper
Source: Museum of Fine Arts Boston

 

Woodblock Printing and Ukiyo-e themindcatalog.com
Travellers on the Road at Miho no Matsubara, 1787-88
Vertical ôban diptych; 38 x 51 cm (14 15/16 x 20 1/16 in.)
Woodblock print (nishiki-e); ink and color on paper
Source: Museum of Fine Arts Boston

 

Woodblock Printing and Ukiyo-e themindcatalog.com
The Full Moon at the Time of the Imo Harvest, 8th month of 1789
9 1/4 x 14 3/4 in. (23.5 x 37.5 cm)
Polychrome woodblock print; ink and color on paper
Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art

 

KITAO MASAYOSHI (1764 – 1824)

Ukiyo-e and Woodblock Pringing themindcatalog.com
The Sixth Month (Rokugatsu), from the series Women’s Customs: Flower Viewing Parties, 1790
Vertical chûban; 25.7 x 19 cm (10 1/8 x 7 1/2 in.)
Woodblock print (nishiki-e); ink and color on paper
Source: Museum of Fine Arts Boston

 

No.4, Pulling Rice Seedlings from the Seedling Bed from the Series Women Farming
Vertical chûban; 22.4 x 16 cm (8 13/16 x 6 5/16 in.)
Woodblock print (nishiki-e); ink and color on paper
Source: Museum of Fine Arts Boston

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.

Birds and Irises in Rain
Originally in Edo period. This one was recarved edition made in c.1930s.
Source: Ukiyo-e.org and Artelino Japanese Prints

 

Nihonbashi: Daimyo Procession Setting Out, Fifty Three Stations of the Tokaido Road, also known as the First Tokaido or Great Tokaido, 1833 – 34
Horizontal ôban; 22.9 x 35.3 cm (9 x 13 7/8 in.)
Woodblock print (nishiki-e); ink and color on paper
Source: Museum of Fine Arts Boston

 

Boshu Yasuda no Kaigan/ Fuji Sanjurokkei, 1858
Rural landscape. Fuji from Yasuda Beach in Awa province
Woodblock print; Nishiki-e on paper
Source: British Museum

 

Hakone; Kosui ca 1833 -34
Source: Ukiyo-e.org and Japanese website
KEISAI EISEN (1790 – 1848)

He’s notable for his works that feature bijin (beautiful women).

Woman Opening an Umbrella, Edo Period
Vertical ôban, upright diptych; 71.4 x 23.8 cm (28 1/8 x 9 3/8 in.)
Woodblock print (nishiki-e)
Ink and color on paper
Source: Museum of Fine Arts Boston

 

Autumn Moon At Mount Atago, from the series of Eight Views of Edo, 1843 – 47
Horizontal ôban; 24 x 35.9 cm (9 7/16 x 14 1/8 in.)
Woodblock print (nishiki-e); ink and color on paper
Source: Museum of Fine Arts Boston

 

Toda River Crossing, 1835 – 1838
Horizontal ôban; 23.6 x 36.3 cm (9 5/16 x 14 5/16 in.)
Woodblock print (nishiki-e); ink and color on paper
Source: Museum of Fine Arts Boston

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.

Self Portrait as a Fisherman, 1835
21.3 x 18.43 cm
Color woodblock print with metallic pigments
Source: Art Institute of Chicago

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.

Fuji from Kanaya on the Tokaido, 1830 – 1832
25 x 37.1 cm (image); 26.3 x 38 cm (sheet)
Color Woodcut Reproduction
Source: Legion of Honor, Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco

 

Umezawa Manor in Sagami Province 1830 – 31
Horizontal ôban; 25.2 x 37.7 cm (9 15/16 x 14 13/16 in.)
Woodblock print (nishiki-e); ink and color on paper
Source: Museum of Fine Arts Boston

 

Kajikazawa in Kai Province (Kôshû Kajikazawa), 1830 – 31
Horizontal ôban; 26 x 38.5 cm (10 1/4 x 15 3/16 in.)
Woodblock print (nishiki-e); ink and color on paper
Source: Museum of Fine Arts Boston

And of course, his work that made him immortal:

Under the Wave Off Kanagawa, 1830 – 32
Color woodblock print; oban
25.4 x 37.6 cm (10 x 14 3/4 in.)
Source: Art Institute of Chicago

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.

Yoshimoto Masao
Fuji From Lake Ashi, c 1952
Woodblock
Source: Japanese Artist Open Database
Morozumi Osamu b. 1948
Rice Field in Hakuba Village – Japan, 1995
Source: Ukiyo-e.org and Artelino

 

Paul Binnie
A Great Mirror of the Actors of the Heisei Period: Bando Tamasaburo as the Heron Maiden
oban tate-e 16 7/8 by 12 1/4 in., 43 by 31 cm
Source: Scholten

 

Two Cats
Inagaki Tomoo (1902 – 1980)
6” x 4”, Woodblock
Source: Japan Art Online Database

 

Crouching Woman, 20th Century
44.5 x 35.7 cm, Color Woodcut
Source: Legion of Honor, Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco

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.

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The Secret Life of Walter Mitty: Review

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is a short story written by James Thurber. And though the film  adaptation has taken liberties with the plot and the details, Walter Mitty’s charm didn’t fade. In fact, the movie has enhanced Walter’s vivid imagination and amplified all the reasons we can all relate to this man.

MEET WALTER MITTY

Walter is given to fantastic daydreaming. And he’s never picky as to where or when he’s going to zone out. He can be at a train station, in a company meeting, in a conversation with the person he fancies or in between the time he contemplates riding a helicopter with a drunk pilot.

He’s been with Life Magazine for 16 years, serving the same department. But it’s now time for the organization to transition to being a full-blown digital publication. He’s got a great working relationship with  Sean O’Connell, a world-famous photographer. The two of them have never met in person, though.

Now, Walter has to submit photo 25, the “quintessence” of O’Connell’s work, especially dedicated to Life’s last issue. But number 25 is lost. In his quest to recover this super important photo, Walter is lead to a series of adventure, encounters and discoveries that he never thought he’d ever have.  

WHY IT’S WORTHY

The film encourages the audience to dream and pursue those dreams with passion. Whatever handicaps we may have in life, we shouldn’t put off the adventures that our hearts truly desire. We may think that we’re busy with life or fear is so strong but we’re only going to find our release the moment we just up and do it.

Of course, there’d be moments when we’re going to fail. And it will hurt us. But still, we come out as the winner. It’s because we realize that whatever we gained is always better than what we initially strive for.

If you’ve got the time and you want to spend it on something truly worthwhile and beautiful, put this movie on. You’ll never regret a moment of it.

Check out the full cast and crew right here.

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VIOLIN STRINGS IN THE MORNING

POETRY

 

Violin Strings in the MorningViolin Strings in the Morning
Violin Strings in the Morning

 

There’s a sadness to the music,

Something that feels heavy and unsure.

Like footsteps, neither going forward nor back.

 

The heartstrings pull the melody

And my insides coil.

Something thick is blocking my mind’s eye.

 

The music then began to mellow

But the ringing in my head won’t fade.

The alternating beats remain.

 

One, three, two, four…

One, three, two, four…

On and on it goes.

 

And I lay still,

On the floor;

Broken.

 

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Akira Kurosawa’s Advice on Writing

Akira Kurosawa has been hailed as one of the greatest filmmakers of the 20th Century. Three of his most notable works include Rashomon (1950), Ikuru (1952) and Ran (1985). His career has spanned several decades of tremendous highs and lows. The highs include winning best foreign film in an international festival while the lowest point may be the time when he attempted to commit suicide.

His career and experiences had become an inspiration to young directors. Most of them came to him for advice. In this interview, Kurosawa gives us a piece of his mind, one that heavily leans on writing:

To sum up, there are three important things that Kurosawa urges young aspirants to do:

First, learn to write screenplays. As he said, it costs a lot to create a movie, but with writing you only need a pen and a paper. It’s through a script that beginners learn the structure of the film and what cinema is. 

Second, be patient. Write one word at a time.  Make it so that it becomes a habit. Do not stop halfway or whenever you feel it gets tough. Hang in there until you reach the end, or you come to a sort of an end. Do not quit.

Writing as Mountain Climbing
Akira Kurosawa thinks that writing is quite the same as mountain climbing.

Lastly, keep reading. While it’s all right to be well-versed with what’s contemporary, a knowledge of the classics can be of great help. Read something, read a lot, read about your land, your culture and that of others. All the little knowledge that you gain will eventually add up. As he said, you can only write about the things that are inside you – whether that’s from something you’ve heard, read or experienced. You can only ever write about the things that you know.

Read then create.
Akira Kurosawa believes that beginners must have a rich reserve within themselves.
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Tiny Feet

Tiny Feet
by Gabriela Mistral

A child’s tiny feet,
Blue, blue with cold,
How can they see and not protect you?
Oh, my God!

Tiny wounded feet,
Bruised all over by pebbles,
Abused by snow and soil!

Man, being blind, ignores
that where you step, you leave
A blossom of bright light,
that where you have placed
your bleeding little soles
a redolent tuberose grows.

Since, however, you walk
through the streets so straight,
you are courageous, without fault.

Child’s tiny feet,
Two suffering little gems,
How can the people pass, unseeing.


Tiny Feet Analysis

Here is one of my most favorite foreign poems of all time. I suddenly remembered it from years back. I got a link for a copy of this poem and read my comment, explaining its meaning. (Yeah, I’ve forgot all about it!). And I was glad because my comment (now you know my name is Jel!) was actually helpful.

Note: I also wrote my analysis on this page. The content will be more or less the same from the link above.

In any piece of literature, as in any piece of art, one should first know the history of the person who created it so as to have a fuller understanding of the work.

Gabriela Mistral has been called a feminist most of her life, but she’s really a child advocate. And she wrote this particular poem to call attention to child prostitution.

From where she was born, prostitution, especially of children, has been rampant. Children, at the very young age of 5 or 6, are pushed to this trade in order to help their families.  Child prostitution has become just another social issue that people choose to ignore.

The title, Tiny Feet, is a phallic symbol, just like the size of a male’s feet connotes the size of his sex organ.

There are several imagery and symbols in the poem. The word “snow” can mean indifference. Just like how we describe people who seem not to care at all as cold. “Soil” symbolizes fertility, referring to the vulnerability of female children. Tuberose is a plant that belongs to the lily family. In literature, it means dangerous pleasures. “Two suffering little gems” refers to virginity.

This poem calls the people attention protect and give importance to children. They are the most vulnerable member of the society and as older people, we are responsible for giving them shelter, security and support.

As a literary piece, this work is so reflective of Mistral’s style. She’s not a stickler for traditional poetry elements. The most defining element of her works is the strength of emotions she’s able to convey through the various use of metaphors, symbols and themes.

This poem has brought me sadness, made me feel horrible and ashamed. Sadness because it’s true, child prostitution is a real social issue and a great concern at that. Horrible, because I just couldn’t imagine the plight of a child described in the poem. And ashamed because I didn’t realize what the author wants to say until a literature professor explained it to me (and I’m not an active participant to end prostitution). I was so ashamed that I got  shallow understanding about this beautiful piece of art. I felt I wasn’t giving it the respect it deserves.

Much is also true for what I felt with Ghibli Studio’s movie, “Spirited Away” which also alludes to child prostitution. That discovery made me really sad. Again, I was clouded by my ignorance.

So, if you want to add your own analysis or interpretation of the poem, please do so on the comments below. Thanks for dropping by!

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Byôbu and Japanese Art


I just purchased an old book called 10,000 Years of Art by Phaidon. It chronicles art pieces the world over, from the earliest stencils on cave walls to the varied and contemporary types of art that we see today. The feature that I loved most about this little handbook though, is that you get to see art from different places around the world adjacent to one another. So you know that when Vermeer was painting the The Milkmaid in Netherlands, the Chinese were busy with their landscape painting while pear-shaped bottles with long necks were popular in Iran.

I took up a very basic course of Art Appreciation back in college. And though the course followed a chronological timeline of important milestones in humanities, only western art imprinted on my mind. I’m not sure whether we had a discussion on how to appreciate eastern art (or art that came from this part of the world) but there is really little that I know about the brilliant works that has sprung from here. And this book somehow gave me an idea on the wonderful craftsmanship and creativity from our part of the world.

Today, we start off with the Japanese screen panel art. Some pieces featured here date back as early as 1540, around the same time Mannerism and Northern Renaissance were sweeping Europe with works like the Hall of the Giants by Giulio Romano in Italy, Salome with the Head of John the Baptist by Lucas Cranach the Elder in Germany and the Saltcellar by Benvenuto Cellini in France.

The latest featured piece dates back in 1710, 40 years before Mr. and Mrs. Andrews was painted in Rococo style by Thomas Gainsborough in United Kingdom.


Byôbu, the Japanese term for folding screens, functions both as furnishing and decoration. It literally means protection against the wind. When used outdoors, it can function as portable walls, demarcating space and shielding revelers from prying eyes.

Wagtails, Pine and Waterfall
Ink and color on paper, 180 x 140 cm / 5ft 10 in x 4 ft 8 in, Daisen-in Daitoku-ji Temple, Kyoto

This first piece of art, called Wagtails, Pine and Waterfall, is the work of Kano Motonobu (1476-1559). It was done during the late Muromachi Period, the same period when the tea ceremony, flower arranging and other art of all kinds began to flourish in Japan.

What’s most interesting about this work is the contrast provided by the upward path of the old pine and the forceful downward fall of the water behind it, while the wagtails and other birds stand in silent awe. The combination of vitality with permanence and grandeur presented in the panel are qualities most denoted from the Kano school imagery.

Pine Forest, Hasegawa Tohaku
Ink on paper, 170 x 350 cm / 5 ft 1 in x 11 ft 5 in, National Museum, Tokyo

We jump over a 40-year period to this work of Hasegawa Tohaku ( 1539 – 1610) called Pine Forest. Such great technique he has to achieve such sublime subtlety. I may not be familiar on how to use India ink or the intricate steps this artist had to take to come up with this (Phaidon gave it in detail), but this is really beautiful.

So as this work borne out of collaboration between Tawaraya Sotatsu and Hon’ami Koetsu called Cranes. Sotatsu defied convention by radically simplifying the forms of the bird so that they appear identical, but each bird retained a unique, lively and varying positions.

Cranes by Sotatsu and Koetsu
Ink, silver, gold pigment on paper, 34 x 136 cm / 1 ft 1 in x 44 ft 5 in, Kyoto National Museum, Kyoto

These two works, one a folding screen and the other a narrative hand scroll, were created during the Momoyama period where both lavish and rustic simplistic styles of art found supporters from different tiers of society.

Spring Cherry with Poem Slips
Ink, color, gold leaf and gold powder on silk, 140 x 290 cm / 4 ft 8 in x 9 ft 5 in, Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, Illinois

In 1670, Tosa Mitsuoki (1617 – 1691) created Spring Cherry with Poem Slips. This features colorful painting style contrasted with the monochrome Chinese ink style as seen in Wagtails, Pine and Waterfall. A lengthy analysis and description of this work can be found here.

Last but definitely not the least, we have Ogata Korin‘s Flowering Irises. Dubbed as the most popular-almost overfamiliar-design in all of Japanese art, this piece is created using only three colors – ultramarine, copper blue and malachite. And the most splendid thing is that no petal nor leaf share the same stroke. This image is only a screen grab from Columbia.edu where you can find detailed explanation for each highlighted part of this byôbu.

Flowering Irises
Color and gold on paper, 150 x 360 cm / 5 ft x 11 ft in, Nezu Institute of Fine Arts, Tokyo

Japanese art are not limited to folding screens or hand scrolls, of course, and there have been many significant art pieces made before all these. But aside from Ukiyo-e, these really captured my attention. Maybe I will post about the art in Late Edo period but that’s for another day. I hope you learned much from this post as much as I had while scouring the net for more information. May your appreciation for these work of art deepened.

Ja ne!


Other helpful links:

Cranes, Tawaraya Sotatsu and Hon’ami Koetsu

Pine Forest, Hasegawa Tohaku

Wagtails, Pine and Waterfall, Kano Motonobu

Metropolitan Museum of Art

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