Ukiyo​-e, Pictures of the floating world

Ukiyo -e, translated as “pictures of the floating world,” has indeed captured wisps of the natural beauty that one sees around us every day.

The phrase “floating world” derived from a Buddhist notion of the transience of earthly life.  To a devout Buddhist, our time on earth though experienced as suffering was only a stage to be passed through on the journey to enlightenment.  The pictures of these floating worlds were, therefore, representations of everyday existence.

The Ukiyo -e artist realised the inherent beauty of the everyday world.  They made prints as an expression of this personal joy.  The first prints were simply black and white.  Gradually, the artists began to use vegetable dyes to colour their prints with a separate wood block f0r each colour in their print.

Painting Process

To create a ukiy-e print the artist first drew on a fragile piece of paper usually made from the bark of the Mulberry tree.  This was pasted down onto a block of fine-grained wood, and the lines were then cut by engravers.  Apparently, the drawing would be destroyed in the process.  A few proofs would be struck from this line block and shown to the artist, who would then indicate the areas to be printed in colour.  Further blocks were prepared for each colour – sometimes up to ten being needed for a single ukiyo-e.

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“The Monkey Bridge” is an 1855 print from Ando Horoshige’s “60 Odd Provinces” collection

Each print carries a wealth of information as well as beauty.  Along with the artist’s signature, the Prince often took the mark of the publisher and the engraver. After 1880, the prints also carried the censor’s seal – indicating that the content of the picture met with the approval of the government. In some prints, characters in the upper right-hand corner give the location of the scene.  It is hard to believe that these graceful and refined works were not objects for the connoisseur, but they were a popular art.  They were souvenirs of a theatre trip, pattern books in which ladies could find designs for a new kimono, and frequently sex manual for the new bride.

Shibai Ukie by Masanobu Okumura, depicting the Kabuki theater Ichimura-za in its early days.
Shibai Ukie by Masanobu Okumura, depicting the Kabuki theatre Ichimura-za in its early days.
Oniji Ōtani III (aka. Nakazō Nakamura II) as Edobee in the May 1794 production of Koi Nyōbo Somewake Tazuna at Edo Kawarasaki-za theater.
Oniji Ōtani III (aka. Nakazō Nakamura II) as Edobee in the May 1794 production of Koi Nyōbo Somewake Tazuna at Edo Kawarasaki-za theatre.
A woodcut entitled Kushi
A woodcut entitled Kushi
Hara on the Tokaido, ukiyo-e prints by Hiroshige
Hara on the Tokaido, ukiyo-e prints by Hiroshige
Ukiyo-e woodblock print of a cuckoo and azaleas by Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai
Ukiyo-e woodblock print of a cuckoo and azaleas by Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai
The three tiles in Takiyasha the Witch and the Skeleton Spectre
The three tiles in Takiyasha the Witch and the Skeleton Spectre

These prints are a recording of 18th and 19th-century life in Japan. They also had a profound effect upon the great Western artists of the time, particularly the Impressionists in France. Among the artists who were visibly influenced were Mary Cassatt, Toulouse-Lautrec, Degas, Gauguin, and Manet.   The American artist Frank Lloyd Wright collected Ukiyo -e prints and was influenced by his architecture by their lines.

Google Art Project has an excellent collection of Ukiyo-e.

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