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Ukiyo-e: Image of the floating World

10/03/2019 0 By teeartdepartment

The Ukiyo-e art from Japan (image of the floating world) is a varied and complex subject. It is the expression of an extremely popular Japanese art movement. This movement appears at the Edo period. It includes an original folk painting and narrative but also the famous Japanese woodblock prints. These woodblock prints represent the heart of the movement.

First of all, what is Ukiyo-e?

The history of Ukiyo-e

With the evolution of Japanese society in the 17th century, an evolution that is both economic and societal, a real change appears in the artistic forms. The birth of the Ukiyo-e leads to a new mode of production. It includes the printing techniques allowing a reproduction on paper less expensive, but also a change in the topics. More centered on the interests of the currently bourgeoisie, models of famous courtesans, drawings of erotic scenes (shunga), Kabuki Theater and sumo wrestlers, or youkai (fantastic creatures of Japanese folklore) can be found.

Because of these subjects considered as vulgar or with little interest, success does not happen instantly in the land of the rising sun. But the genre becomes famous by appearing in Europe and with Westerners at the end of the 19th century. The arrival in large quantities of these Japanese prints in Europe and the birth of Japonism movement strongly influence European painting and, in particular, artists such as Paul Cézanne, Émile Bernard, Paul Gauguin, and obviously Cubism and the entire impressionist movement with Van Gogh, Monet, Degas and Klimt.

The end of the Ukiyo-e

Meiji Restoration
Meiji Restoration

Following the Meiji Restoration in 1868, Japan opens up to Western imports, including photography and printing techniques. Natural colors from plants used in Ukiyo-e are replaced by chemical aniline tints imported from Germany. This marks the beginning of the end of Ukiyo-e movement.

The renewal of art

In the twentieth century, Ukiyo-e art experiences a rebirth in the form of shin-hanga and sōsaku hanga movements, both of which sought to distinguish themselves from the tradition of a mass commercial art. Inspired by European impressionism, artists incorporate Western elements such as the play of light and the expression of personal humor, but focus on strictly traditional themes.

Ukiyo-e - Sōsaku Hanga Movment
Sōsaku Hanga Movment

The sōsaku hanga (literally “creative print”) movement adopts a Western conception of art. The print should not be the result of the work of several craftspersons but of a single artist mastering the whole process. This movement is therefore opposed to the traditional Ukiyo-e, where the different stages are separated and executed by different and highly specialized people. The artistic movement is formally established with the formation of the Japanese Creative Trials Society in 1918, but has a limited commercial success.

Artistic influences between Japan and the West

Japanese artists discover western painting

It is amusing to see that the different Japanese and Western movements have inspired each other over time. Japanese artists were the first to discover European painting. From 1739 to be exact, the painter Okumura Masanobu undertakes for the first time the study of perspective coming from the West.

Ukiyo-e Art Movement - Okumura Masanobu Work
Okumura Masanobu Work

Then, as early as 1750, copies of certain copper engravings appears (reproducing works by Guardi or Canaletto to name just a few), leading to astonishing prints showing the gondolas on the Grand Canal in Venice.

In the 1760s, the great Japanese artist Toyoharu produces prints that dealt with Japanese subjects using a “Western” perspective (use of vanishing lines). This new mode of creation becomes an example for all the Ukiyo-e movement and will be used on many representations. Without Toyoharu’s work, it is obvious that the work of legends such as Hiroshige or Hokusai would have been completely different. In addition to perspective, another Western discovery deeply marks the Ukiyo-e, from 1829: it is Prussian blue. It was used intensively by Hokusai in 1830 in the first 10 prints of his famous series Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji (including the famous Great Wave off Kanagawa), then, among other artists, by Hiroshige.

Discovery of Ukiyo-e by the West

Although Japanese artists are quickly discovering Western art, it is not the same in the other way around.

The West does not really discover the art of Ukiyo-e and the Japanese art in general until much later, thanks to the 1867 World’s Fair. This exhibition is held in Paris and it is also in France that this influence will be the most striking.

Paris Universal Exposition (1867)
Paris Universal Exposition (1867)

This World Expo, to which, for the first time, Japan participates officially, is followed by the sale of some thirteen hundred objects. From then on, the impetus is given: such sales will be repeated over time.

Stamp Collections

French artists of the time are often among the first to appreciate Japanese art, such as Claude Monet. This one brings together a large collection of prints that is still visible). The craze for Ukiyo-e and the importance of large Western collections are such that the prints collected at this time bear the stamp of the collector which is still today allows rigorous authentification and increases the overvalue.

One of the greatest collectors of prints, Count Isaac de Camondo, bequeaths his entire collection to the Louvre Museum, where it forms the basis of what is today the great collection of the Guimet Museum in Paris.

Making a woodblock print

Many people mistakenly think that woodblock print is just a painting. But its design is much more complicated. It is mainly based on the reproduction of a large-scale work.

Ukiyo-e prints are produced this way:

  • The artist makes a master drawing using ink.
  • The engraving craftsman sticks this drawing against a board of wood, then hollows out the areas where the paper is white, thus creating the drawing in relief on the board. It destroys however the original work during the process. It is therefore almost impossible to find original works. At best the first reproductions can still be seen in museums or collections.
  • The board thus engraved is inked and printed so as to produce almost perfect copies of the original drawing.
  • These prints are in turn glued to new boards of wood, and the areas of the drawing to be colored in a particular color are left in relief. Each of the boards will print at least one color in the final image.
  • The resulting wooden board game is inked in different colors and applied successively on the paper. The perfect fit of each board with respect to the rest of the picture is obtained by kiting marks called kento.

Famous Japanese painters

There are many Japanese artists that could be name.

  • Katsukawa Shun’ei (1762-1819), famous for the quality of his portraits of Kabuki actors
  • Masanobu (1686-1764), one of the first to work on the western perspectives.

Here after is a list of 5 famous artists to remember.

Hishikawa Moronobu (1618- 1694)

It would be unreasonable not to mention Moronobu. He is considered as the very first representative of the school Ukiyo-e. By adapting the traditional techniques of painting on woodcut and publishing prints on loose paper rather than entire books, he contributed to the diffusion of Japanese print in the most modest classes.

Katsushika Hokusai (1760 – 1849)

It is impossible not to mention him. He remains the most famous Japanese artist in the world. He influenced the West and contributed to the formation of the Japanese movement thanks to his Manga grouping sketches and drawings. The Thirty-six views of Mount Fuji (1831-1833) and of course The Great Wave of Kanagawa (1831) represent his best-known works.

Utagawa Hiroshige (1797 – 1858)

Hiroshige is a Japanese draftsman, engraver and painter. Hiroshige is with Hokusai, one of the last great names of Ukiyo-e. He distinguishes himself by series of prints on Mount Fuji and Edo. He took the moments of the daily life of the city before its transformation in the Meiji era.

Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1797-1861)

He is one of the last great Japanese masters of woodblock prints. He is a unique artist because he is the only one to have approached so many different genres. In his list you can find portraits of warriors, actors or courtesans, caricatures, landscapes or genre scenes in the category of prints.

Kawanabe Kyosai (1831 – 1889)

He is a Japanese artist who lived from the Edo period to the Meiji era. Specialist in caricatures, he is the author of many known images and sketches that refer to the folklore of his country. He is considered as one of the very last (maybe even the ultimate) representative of Traditional Japanese painting.

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