When considering Japanese art, there is one form that immediately comes to mind, that of Ukiyo-e woodblock prints.
Compared to western art, Japanese wall art such as pictures and paintings was not a prevalent form of expression, yet Japanese woodblock prints or Ukiyo-e have become a prestigious and highly influential art movement; funny enough this is more so internationally than in Japan.
Just take a look at the most famous piece of art in Japanese history, Katsushika Hokusai’s ‘The great wave off Kanagawa’, a piece produced using the woodblock printing process and perhaps the most reproduced piece of art in Human history. It’s works such as Hokusai’s that ended up influencing western artists and made Ukiyo-e as prestigious as it is.
Let’s find out how this is the case — and for those new to Ukiyo-e — exactly what it is.
The floating world
Ukiyo-e is the Japanese name for the resulting piece of art produced by using woodblock prints. In English it translates to mean ‘pictures of the floating world’, if nothing else it’s a name that has an air of romanticisation and wonder about it.
In truth, this name is quite fitting. Ukiyo-e prints have a unique style, recognised by their flat but bold colours and their distinct edges and outlines that create an often otherworldly appearance. The subject matter of Ukiyo-e on the other hand consists of everyday situations and scenarios. Japanese women and courtesans were very popular during the entirety of the art movement but included others such as sumo wrestlers and Kabuki actors. As Ukiyo-e developed, landscape scenes, nature, animals, and scenes of revelry became more common, especially among some artists.
To create these images we know that woodblocks are used but what exactly is the process from start to finish?
Producing Ukiyo-e woodblock prints
To achieve the finished product actually involves at least three people:
- The artist
- The Carver
- The printer
The artist is the person that comes up with the concept of the piece of art; the subject, style, etc. They will produce an initial ink line drawing of the work which will then pass onto the carver.
The carver’s job is to take the line drawing and a block of wood and carve the design onto it. They will place the drawing on the block and the carver will meticulously carve around the outlines leaving the image protruding out, rather than carving it into the wood.
There will actually be a number of blocks to carve as each will contain a different part of the initial drawing, this is so that each part of the final piece can be coloured differently. This is the most time consuming part of the process and can take weeks to finish carving a full set of blocks for one design. Four to five blocks is a common amount but are often double-sided depending on how many varying colours and shades the artist needs.
The finished woodblocks will then pass onto the printer.
The printer has the task of creating the final image designed by the artist in full colour. The printer will take the completed woodblocks one at a time and begin applying paint to them.
Paper is then placed on top and is rubbed over with a series of brushes as well as tools called ‘baren’ to help fully apply paint to the page. The same page is applied in turn to each woodblock which houses different parts of the design until the full final image and colour has been printed.
The rise of Ukiyo-e woodblock prints
Ukiyo-e came about during the relatively peaceful Edo period (1603 – 1867) during the rule of the Tokugawa Shogunate. The stability during this time led to an increase in the enjoyment of arts, culture, and entertainment (among other things) as well as the ambition to capture and depict the times they were living in.
It was during this period that Japan was also an isolationist nation; upon its end was when Japan’s interest in Ukiyo-e waned but internationally gained prestige.
As Japan once again began interacting and sharing with the rest of the world, the abundance of Ukiyo-e prints meant that inevitably some were brought over to the west. These would be some of the first pieces of Japanese art to be seen in other countries; consequently, they were used to discern much about Japan and the subject and style of it’s art.
The first wave of inspiration from Ukiyo-e woodblock prints came in the form of the craze known as Japonism.
Prevailing mostly in France where the term Japonisme is more commonly used, artists and designers were intrigued by the perspectives, colour, and lines of Ukiyo-e which were in stark contrast to the west’s pursuit of realism. The movement started off as a desire to collect as much of this ‘new’ artwork as possible while at the same time driving up their value and circulating the news of Ukiyo-e to others.
The second wave of inspiration came when Japonism became more than just about collecting Ukiyo-e but also applying their techniques.
After the initial enthusiasm for Ukiyo-e many artists took to incorporating some of its aspects into their own work. Some western artists were influenced more than others and a number of now well-known artists were among them:
- Édouard Manet
- Claude Monet
- Vincent Van Gogh
- Edgar Degas
- Gustav Klimt
For example, some of Édouard Manet works contain subtle inclusions of Japanese items within his paintings, such as in ‘Women with fans’ and ‘Portrait of Emile Zola’. Claude Monet on the other hand created a Japanese garden in his home followed by paintings such as ‘water lilies and Japanese bridge’.
Ukiyo-e had perhaps the biggest effect on Vincent Van Gogh. One of his first incorporations of Japonism inspired by Ukiyo-e, was in the famous ‘Portrait of Pere Tanguy’. He created three versions of the painting and all of them included a background collage of Japanese imagery. In the same year (1887) he proceeded to re-create a handful of Utagawa Hiroshige’s prints to better understand the work. The ‘Flowering plum orchard’ and ‘Bridge in the rain’ are two well-known examples.
A lasting impression
The Japanonism phase in the west fizzled out by the early 1900’s, but the lasting effect it had on artists and their work could not be forgotten. The Ukiyo-e movement lay dormant.
Fast-forwarding to the 21st century and with the advancement in technology, Ukiyo-e woodblock prints have once again become popular. For the same reasons that western artists admired Ukiyo-e, modern audiences have become collectors and admirers. They still present the same romanticisation and wonder of Japan but have become readily accessible; in fact, there are more Ukiyo-e prints held in museums and galleries outside Japan than in the country of origin.
Japan has also seen a small revitalisation of Ukiyo-e. In a strange twist of fate, instead of a pure continuation of tradition, modern Japanese Ukiyo-e has been influenced by the western development and techniques. It could be said it has come full circle. In the same way that traditional Ukiyo-e captured the everyday surroundings of it’s time, modern artists are portraying their everyday surroundings too.
However in the west it is still the celebration of works from the ‘great masters’ such as Hokusai, Hiroshige and Kitagawa Utamaro that give Ukiyo-e the prestige that it now enjoys.
The advancement of Printing and digital technology means that Ukiyo-e woodblock print preservation and reproduction have become far easier and can now come in many forms. Getting hold of your own print could not be easier. You can find them at places such as:
- Homeware stores
Even today, Ukiyo-e is influencing many of us in a variety of ways whether that be artistically or just by providing a window to Japan; either way it is an art form that has made a lasting impression on the world. Better still ukiyo-e woodblock prints have become accessible to both everyday people but also avid collectors.