Art History: Ukiyo-e

Perhaps the form of art that is most associated with Japanese artists, Ukiyo-e artwork was the result of woodblock artists and their crews providing aesthetic products to a rapidly growing merchant class of the early 18th century Japan.  When the Tokugawa shogunate officially took over Japan and the Edo period began (Edo period denotes when the city of Edo, now modern day Tokyo, became the seat of the country’s government) a social stratification was put in place that placed Samurai at the pinnacle of society and placed merchants at the bottom.  The merchants were then in the position of having immense material wealth, yet limited political or social power with which to use it.  The result was a large scale shift towards hedonism and rampant spending on pleasures.  Brothels, drinking establishments, theaters, and restaurants flourished during this time as the merchant classes hemorrhaged money that they were accumulating.  The Ukiyo-e art itself takes its name from this time, (loosely translating into the “floating world” or “sorrowful world”) because the art was aimed at the merchants lives.  Depictions of beautiful women, sumo wrestlers, and kabuki theater actors began to spring up, tailored to sell to the merchants who had money to burn.  Starting off as a plebeian form of art, Ukiyo-e rapidly gained popularity as the style became more widespread and took on more historical and social themes that applied to the non-merchant classes.

Ukiyo-e art was done with woodblocks, meaning that there would be an artist who would make the original image on a thin piece of paper and then pass it off to a woodcarver who would paste it to a piece of wood and carve the image out.  It would then be given to a printer who would mass produce the image for sale.  Typically, the only people who gained fame from the woodblock process was the artist and the publicist who sold the images, the printer and the carver were left out in the cold.  Individual woodcuts could print several hundred images of the same piece, allowing a popular painting to be shared widely.  The style was known for having very distinct black lines, markedly separating colors and images from one another and giving the image a harshness that European artists of the time were avoiding.

The block would be a negative image that ink could be applied to.  Color would be either added to the image directly, or in layers of printing.

As the style developed, landscapes began to gain popularity, culminating in one of the most famous works of Ukiyo-e art of all time: The Great Wave off Kanagawa.  The first of Katsushika Hokusai’s Thirty six views of Mount Fuji, the paining was the most popular woodblock image of the era, rocketing Hokusai to fame.  His thirty six images of Japan’s famous mountain were so popular that he later produced another ten as an expansion set to the first group.

This painting was ridiculously popular.  It’s believed that there were 5,000 prints made from the original woodcut before the thing fell apart.  After that, people replicated the original and made more prints.  It’s one of the most readily recognized pieces of artwork from Japan, showing up everywhere from museums to fingernails.




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