Japanese Ukiyo-e Prints

26 Jun

Ukiyo-e is a genre of woodblock prints that flourished in the Edo period (1603-1867). Term ‘Ukiyo-e’ literally means ‘pictures of the floating world‘ as it was meant to describe the hedonistic lifestyle of the merchant class that benefited from the rapid economical growth in Edo (modern Tokyo). Merchant class, previously at the bottom of the social order, now had enough wealth to indulge in all sorts of pleasures; from kabuki theatre to services of courtesans and geishas. Courtesan culture also flourished in Edo period, and male wanderers could find a refined female company in the ‘pleasure quarter’. On the other hand, geishas are female entertainers and hostesses, skilled in different areas such as calligraphy or dance. Courtesans were describes as ‘colourful flowers’ while geisha women were called ‘willows’ because of their subtlety, strength, and grace. In addition to all this, merchant class had enough money to afford a new art or design items, depends on how you look at it. I suppose some people really appreciated the beauty of Ukiyo-e prints while others merely enjoyed having them on the wall.

Ukiyo-e prints have a wide range of subjects and styles, depending on the artist and on the time period. The pictures below are my personal favourites, though I’ve also wanted to present you the variety of these artworks and Japanese culture. Woman Bathing Under Flowers is perhaps my top-favourite. However, as a true European my mind instantly compares these works with European artworks of the time. I mean, some of these works were created in the early nineteenth century – the same years that Jane Austen’s novels were written. It’s so exciting to encounter a different era, a different culture, if not in person, than through these lavishing woodblock prints – overwhelmingly simplistic, but dynamic, colourful, scenes from the world gone by.

The great diversity that excites me, and I hope you too, can be traced through the work of the various artists – from the famous Hokusai’s waves or Hiroshige’s nocturnal landscapes to Keisai Eisen’s ‘beautiful women’, Sharaku’s kabuki actors, Torii Kiyonaga’s mystical night scenes, to my personal favourite – Utagawa Toyokuni who, as you can see, focused on everyday scenes, especially women’s activities – bathing, applying makeup, calming hair, strolling in the rain (probably worried for the hairstyle), playing with dogs or cats, dancing or showing off in front of your friends – typical activities of the modern women. It seems like time changes, but people, their worries, fears and passions usually stay the same. Imagine, Utagawa Kunisada’s beauties in the print ‘Autumn moon over Miho’ admired the very same moon we see today.

I must add that Ukiyo-e prints were hugely influential on European art, especially on the Impressionists and Postimpressionist such as Vincent van Gogh who admired some of Hokusai’s prints and also the Japanese way of living.

 

Utagawa Toyokuni I (1769-1825) - Woman Bathing Under Flowers. Ukiyo-e woodblock print, 18001800. Utagawa Toyokuni I (1769-1825) – Woman Bathing Under Flowers, Ukiyo-e woodblock print

Utagawa Toyokuni I (1769-1825) - Woman in Rain with Umbrella.  Ukiyo-e woodblock print, 18001800. Utagawa Toyokuni I (1769-1825) – Woman in Rain with Umbrella

 

Utagawa Toyokuni I (1769-1825) - Komachi at Sekidera ca.1810, from the series Modern Girls as Seven Komachica. 1810. Utagawa Toyokuni I (1769-1825) – Komachi at Sekidera, from the series ‘Modern Girls as Seven Komachi’

Utagawa Toyokuni I (1769-1825) - Woman Holding a Cat, Ukiyo-e woodblock print, 18001800. Utagawa Toyokuni I (1769-1825) – Woman Holding a Cat

Utagawa Toyokuni I (1769-1825) - Kaoru of the Sugata-Ebiya, kamuro Nioi and Tomeki. Ukiyo-e, 18001800. Utagawa Toyokuni I (1769-1825) – Kaoru of the Sugata-Ebiya, Kamuro Nioi and Tomeki

Utagawa Toyokuni I (1769-1825) - Beauty under Maple and Ginkgo Leaves, 18111811. Utagawa Toyokuni I (1769-1825) – Beauty under Maple and Ginkgo Leaves

Youshuu Chikanobu (1838-1912), Picture of the Hell CourtesanYoushuu Chikanobu (1838-1912), Picture of the Hell Courtesan

Woman Applying Cosmetics, early 19th century, Korii KoyinagaKorii Koyinaga – Woman Applying Cosmetics, early 19th century

Woman washing her hair with an attendant, Mid 18th century, Katsukawa ShunsuiWoman washing her hair with an attendant, Mid 18th century, Katsukawa Shunsui

Two women gazing at the reflection of the moon, Early 19th century , Kubo ShunmanTwo women gazing at the reflection of the moon, Early 19th century , Kubo Shunman

Seven classes of women. Color and gold on silk.  Early 19th century, Japan, Artist - Utagawa ToyohiroSeven classes of women. Color and gold on silk. Early 19th century, Utagawa Toyohiro

A Leopard Drawn from Life- Kunimaro, 1860, Japan1860. A Leopard Drawn from Life – Kunimaro

Beauties in the Snow By Utamaro Kitagawa, JapanBeauties in the Snow By Utamaro Kitagawa (1753-1806)

1796-99. The Courtesan Ichikawa of the Matsuba Establishment - Utamaro1796-99 The Courtesan Ichikawa of the Matsuba Establishment – Utamaro

1797. Hairdresser from the series Twelve types of women's handicraft - Utamaro1797 Hairdresser from the series Twelve types of women’s handicraft – Utamaro

1800s Katsushika Hokusai - Courtesan asleepLate 18th/early 19th century, Katsushika Hokusai – Courtesan asleep

1767. Two Lovers Beneath an Umbrella in the Snow - Suzuki Harunobu1767 Two Lovers Beneath an Umbrella in the Snow – Suzuki Harunobu

1794. The actor Otani Oniji II as Yakko Edobei - Sharaku1794 The actor Otani Oniji II as Yakko Edobei – Sharaku

1820. Hokusai - Still Life1820 Hokusai – Still Life

1826-33. The Great Wave off Kanagawa, Hokusai's most famous print, the first in the series 36 Views of Mount Fuji1826-33 The Great Wave off Kanagawa, Hokusai’s most famous print

1857 Sudden shower over Shin-Ohashi bridge and Atake – Hiroshige

1857 The Plum Garden in Kameido – Hiroshige

1830s Utagawa Kunisada - Autumn moon over Miho1830s Utagawa Kunisada – Autumn moon over Miho

1858. Hiroshige - The Sea at Satta, Suruga Province, from the series 'Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji'1858 Hiroshige – The Sea at Satta, Suruga Province, from the series ‘Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji’

1834. Hiroshige - Full Moon over a Mountain Landscape1834 Hiroshige – Full Moon over a Mountain Landscape

1834. Hiroshige - Heavy Rain on a Pine Tree1834 Hiroshige – Heavy Rain on a Pine Tree

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4 Responses to “Japanese Ukiyo-e Prints”

  1. Elliot 26th June 2015 at 7:25 pm #

    An interesting post, I personally am not a great fan of eastern art, the way they draw people and the overall style does not appeal to my taste. But I actually quite like some of the pictures you have shown here, the composition, colours and simple lines are quite good in some of them, especially the landscape ones. I particularly like ‘The Plum garden’, ‘beauties in the snow’ and ‘two lovers underneath an umbrella in the snow’.

    Like

    • Byron's Muse 26th June 2015 at 8:32 pm #

      I understand you completely, for, even as a big art fan, some artists just really don’t appeal to me, I don’t like Picasso that much, to be honest. I’m glad though that you liked some of these ukiyo-e pictures. Japanese landscapes are interesting, I like the way they painted waves.

      Seems like you and van Gogh have similar tastes, for he too liked the picture ‘The plum garden’, and in fact painted something inspired by that particular ukiyo-e print. If you want to see it, I’ve written about it here: https://byronsmuse.wordpress.com/2014/08/16/van-gogh-japonaiserie/

      Liked by 1 person

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