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Reference »  Ukiyo-e

Japanese Art (17C-19C)
Ukiyo-e woodblock prints are probably the most well known of all the Japanese arts. This particular style of art thrived in Japan from the mid-seventeenth century to the mid-nineteenth century.

What 'Ukiyo-e' Means?
The woodblock prints are referred to as ukiyo-e, the original Buddhist word meaning "sad world". By the seventeenth century the meaning had evolved to stand for "floating world". The world referred to was one of transient pleasures and freedom from the cares and concerns of the world. The prints and paintings that the merchants commissioned and bought, almost always depicted aspects of a carefree existence, and were therefore called ukiyo-e, "pictures of the floating world".

To understand the prints, and gain respect for the art, we must understand something of the ukiyo-e, or at least those aspects of it which the printmakers were fond of depicting: theatre, life in the pleasure quarters and travel. In essence, ukiyo-e tells us much of the Japans rich history.

Renaissance and the Life of Samurai
During the sixteenth century in Japan long standing wars between the feudal lords came to an end and the country was unified. The resultant peace and unification gave birth to a renaissance in the traditional arts. The Samurai, the military class, began to beautify their castles which, until that time, had been little more than grim fortresses. Painters and decorators were commissioned to decorate sliding doors, ceilings and wood panels while weavers and seamstresses were commissioned to produce extravagant clothes. Every form of art and craft was vitalised by the aspirations of the powerful samurai to make their lives as luxurious as possible.

The great merchant families of the cities of Kyoto and Sakai, whose money had provided the samurai with guns and ammunition, also endeavoured to improve the quality of their lives. Since they were of a lower social order than the military, the merchants did not pretend to be members privy to the aristocratic forms of art. They commissioned paintings depicting pretty courtesans, visited the new kubuki dances, and read popular books that were lavishly illustrated by hand.
Some of these story books were produced as scrolls and some were bound. The demand for these illustrated manuscripts became so great that they could no longer be made by hand. The picture book printed from cut wood was born.

Woodblock Print
The technique of printing from wood blocks had been known In Japan for many centuries, the first Japanese illustrated book printed from wood blocks did not appear until around 1650. The book was the Ise Mongatari which is a traditional tale. The illustrations in early printed books were crude and subordinate to the text. Very soon the pictures became more important and provided the masses with an affordable form of art. Even the illiterate bought books for the sake of the pictures.

The Japanese woodblock prints used in the books are said to be the work of the designer or illustrator. In actuality it is the combined efforts of three separate artisans: the artist, the woodblock cutter and the printer. A master artist first draws his design which is then pasted down on a finely prepared cherry woodblock. The woodblock cutter follows the lines with a sharp chisel. The finished block is a work of art in itself. After that the block is inked and a sheet of dampened paper is laid upon it. The back of the paper is rubbed until the impression is uniformly transferred on to it. This is called the key print which is then returned to the artist who chooses the colours he wants and where he wants them to go. A separate block is carved for every colour to be used in the print. The blocks then go to the printer, who, using a mulberry paper, rubs natural vegetable dyes on to the blocks and transfers each impression in register with absolute perfection. The mulberry paper alone can take three months to make.

The Cities - Edo and Kyoto
Around 1660 there were many illustrators working under contract for publishers in Edo, Japans most important city which is modern day Tokyo. One of them, Hishikawa Moronobu, persuaded his publisher to issue illustrations as single sheets and without text. These sold very well and from then on woodblock prints, as well as illustrated books, were widely available to the public. He not only signed each print in the woodblock, but his signature announced to the world that he took himself seriously as an artist. It was Yamato esho - master of Japanese painting.

By the sixteenth century a troupe of entertainers, led by a woman, became popular in Kyoto. It specialised in dances performed by men masquerading as women, and women as men. Many troupes emerged, some of which consisted only of women who were less interested in dancing than offering sexual favours for sale. The authorities soon prohibited them. The girls were then replaced by boys who were soon banned for the same reason. Finally adult males took over, and they begun to liven up the performances by acting out some of the popular stories of the day. The result was the form of the kabuki theatre that has endured, with very little modification, through to today.

Kabuki
In contemporary slang kabuku means 'fashionable', and it is thought that the name kabuki developed from it. The theatre was not only fashionable, it was also very popular, partly because it was the only outside entertainment to which respectable women might go. Not only the leisured wives of daughters of the merchants flocked to the theatre, but also, on the few free days, the ladies of the court went also. Some of these women were fortunate, or forward, enough to have actors as lovers. Most had to be content with portrait-prints of their favourites. publishers were aware of the demand and commissioned artists to depict every aspect of the life of an actor and the kabuki theatre. They showed actors relaxing backstage, holding a dramatic pose or simply out taking a walk. They also produced single and group portraits. The theatre provided the print-makers with an inexhaustible supply of subjects, and the prints boosted the popularity of the actors and of particular plays.

There were as many male enthusiasts of the kabuki as there were female devotees. For the men, however, there was a more important place of entertainment - the brothel. The craftsmen and merchants possessed enough money and time to allow them to live large parts of their lives with courtesans and prostitutes. A large industry grew up to meet their needs. By 1627 all the whores and brothels in Edo had been concentrated in one place, called Yoshiwara, and were licensed for prostitution.
After a disastrous fire, in 1657, which virtually destroyed Edo and caused the city to be replanned and rebuilt, another district was specified clear for prostitution and called the New Yoshiwara, which continued in its specialised trade until 1951.

Subjects of Prints
The most accomplished of the courtesans provided the print-makers with many of their subjects. Although prints of explicit sexually activity were popular, the courtesan was frequently depicted showing off extravagant kimonos like a fashion model, demonstrating the latest hairstyle and enjoying her allegedly leisured way of life. She was a star, and her portrait bought by admirers and those who wished they could afford her, increased the demand for her and the profits of her house.

The Style of Prints
Once Hishikawa Moronobu had signed his prints and had called himself a master, other artists followed suit. Master-pupil relationships soon developed. Schools of print-making, each with its preferred subjects and characteristic style, emerged. They were known as families because the head pupil often married into his master's family and established a true blood relationship. In the early eighteenth century families such as the Hisikawa (Moronobu's followers) the Torii (who specialised in actor prints) and the Kaigetsudo (masters of the full-lengths of women) were especially prominent.

Development of Print-Making
The early eighteenth century was a period of development in print-making. The quality of the paper improved: shapes and sizes of prints became varied and polytychs were introduced. Techniques of printing became more sophisticated. The urushi-e, lacquer print was developed in which certain areas of black are made to shine by mixing glue with the printing ink.

The greatest innovation in technique was the use of colour. From the earliest times, deluxe editions of print had been richly coloured by hand, and by the middle of the eighteenth century Okumara Masanobu (a publisher as well as an artist) was experimenting with the use of more than one block to produce beni-e, or 'red pictures' which employed up to three colours. These colours, however, were not contained by the contours of the design.
The first truly polychromatic print (nishiki-e or 'brocade picture' in Japanese) appeared around 1769. An Edo artist, Suzuki Harunobu, published a series of prints in which the colours were either enclosed by an outline, or formed hard edges of their own. These prints were an instant success and Harunobu, until his death six years later age 46, was the most popular artist in Edo, producing prints of ethereal, identical looking young men and women, posing with exquisite grace.

During this time of innovation Japan was still virtually cut off from the rest of the world. It wasn't until Admiral Perry came to Japan in 1854 that Japan's doors were opened to other countries. Then the beautiful Japanese ukiyo-e prints became popular throughout the world. Unfortunately with the ravages of time, fire, earthquakes, few of these priceless sheets of beauty have survived but there are still many for us to enjoy.