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.



Art History: Dada

Perhaps one of the most famous art movements and one of the most famous “not-art” movements, Dadaism was one of the first forms that emerged from the breach of post-impressionism.  The strict definition of Dada is still up for grabs, it could mean “hobby horse”, it could mean dad, it could even mean nothing depending on who is asked.  What is known about Dada is that it was a response by artists across Europe and the world to the horrors of World War I.  Original Dadaists argued that the conflict in the early 1900s was the result of the societal and aesthetic rigidity that ran rampant through society.  When a conflict engulfed the entire continent of Europe, the artists made the claim that it was the locked down guidelines of all things normal that caused it; their solution was simple, do the opposite.

Marcel Duchamp’s famed anti-art.  He took a postcard with a picture of the Mona Lisa, drew on a Snidley Whiplash and labeled it “L.H.O.O.Q.” which roughly translated into a French pun saying she was a loose woman.

The Dadaists argued that they were not artists.  They did not produce art, in fact, they actively tried to produce things that would not be considered art by the common standards of society.  If the traditions of the regular world could result in the massacres of the trenches, then something that broke free from the standards would be heading away from the thought process that dragged the world into the torrents of fire and blood.  Artwork was made with the intent of offending modern sensibilities and modern aesthetics as a move towards a less violent and less grotesque future.

Perhaps his most famous work, Duchamp’s “Fountain” was another piece of anti-art that he called “ready made”.  He quite literally took a urinal, placed it on its side, slapped on a pen name “R.Mutt”, and dated it.  It wasn’t anything special, in fact he just bought it at a hardware store.  What it did do was press the art world into thinking about what actually made something art.  In Duchamp’s case, many people believed his intent was to prove to the world that art was distasteful and shameful.

The final result of the Dada movement was the burgeoning of cubism and expressionism in art.  It begged the question of what made something artistic, was it the beauty in it that the beholder saw or was it the meaning in it that the artist gave the work?  In any case, the artwork was a curious moment when the world of paint and pastels became freed from the real for a short number of years.

Some examples of Dada art (or not-art, really up to you which it is), as well as works by Dada artists after they left the movement:

Above is a piece entitled, “Portrait of an American Girl in the State of Nudity”, and no, I didn’t put up the wrong thing.  It is literally a spark plug…  After all, who are you to say why a picture should be descriptively titled.

This one is called “Girl Born Without a Mother”.



This one is called the “Enigma of Isidore Ducassa”.  It is actually a sewing machine wrapped in fabric and tied with string.



This one is straight up just called “Underwood”.



A Short Primer on Art History

It’s nearly impossible to look through a textbook without finding some sort of artistic illustration to aid the understanding.  In many books, the authors and editors draw upon art from the past to better explicate some points.  This here is a basic overview of a small number art styles (Granted, nearly all of them European) and how to recognize them:

Best known as the art of antiquity, it would adhere to standards of beauty in the form and the harmony of the art.  Michelangelo’s David, while not from the Classical era, is the ideal representation of a Classical sculpture.  Essentially, the artwork would depict the human form in the most ideal state of aesthetic beauty for the time.  The goal would be to make it so that nothing could be added or removed from the sculptures and images that would not make it worse.  Buildings would be symmetrical, using straight lines whenever possible and typically would follow the golden ratio for the Greek standard of mathematical beauty.  Artists of the 1600s and 1700s would strive to recreate the perfection of the Classical masters during the Neoclassical movement.

Medieval artwork that originated in the 1200s.  Much of it was built around Christian religious iconography, the era is most characterized by its architecture.  The Cathedrals and extensive decoration for the insides and outsides of the Cathedrals define the Gothic art style.  Stark and simplistic, Italian Renaissance writers named the Gothic style was after the barbarian Goth tribes who destroyed the Roman empire, even though the Goths had nothing to do with the art style.  Since the Roman art style was highly regarded in the Renaissance, the Gothic title served to criticize “ugliness” of the non-Classical structure of the buildings and artwork.  Typically Gothic architecture contains a high vaulted ceiling, a technical marvel of the time.  In art, Gothic forms would typically contain very little movement, limited use of perspective and served as a focal point for worship.  The image below is a good example of classic Gothic artwork:

Babies always looked a little weird in this period.  The golden ring around the people’s heads typically signify their religious significance or if they were saints.

File:Rothenburg ob der Tauber 2011 St Jakob 002.JPG
The above image is from Reimenschneider’s Altar of the Holy Blood in Rotemburg, Germany.  The entire thing is carved out of wood.  When he completed the altar, the artwork was considered to be so detailed and full of expressive movement that the townsfolk of the city commissioned a second artist to do a different altar.  The belief was that no man could be so accurate and precise when carving, so Reimenschneider must have made a deal with Satan to create the masterpiece.


The true turning point of the art world, the Renaissance meant “the rebirth”.  It was the perfect storm resulting from the Crusades, the Black Death, Genoese success in trade, and schisms in the Church.  The influx of new ideas during the Crusades served to highlight the backwardness of the European continent, bringing back astonishing inventions, unexpected ideas, and stories about the wealth and beauty of the Muslim nations.  The Black Death striking in the 1300s served to both reduce the ranks within the Church and to remove the public trust in the Church’s capacity to ensure salvation.  Recent expeditions to the Orient caused the rise of über-wealthy merchants in several regions, creating patrons who were not linked directly to the Church itself and would spend money on non-iconographic paintings and sculpture.  Lastly, the Church itself had just ended the Avignon era, where disagreements over theology led to a portion of the Papacy in the Vatican to up and leave, forming their own Papacy in Avignon, France.  Again, the public approval in the Church was at a record low, leading to a growth of scientific ideas and art, hailing back to the Pagan interests of the ancient Greeks.  In their striving to be more like Aristotle and Euclid and such, the Renaissance era became the first stepping stone towards the modern era.  Use of oil paints and perspective within art allowed images to be more realistic than ever before, and patronage from wealthy merchants and rulers allowed art to explore areligious zones it had not been allowed to venture in the centuries before.

Baroque artwork took off in the 1600s as a response to Protestantism and the Renaissance.  While the word Baroque most nearly means “imperfect pearl”, the word is now used to refer to anything overtly ornate and decorative. The Catholic Church began to patronize the art as a means of showing the splendor and grandeur of their faith, arguing that art should be a means of evoking Religious feeling and emotion.  The autocrats and merchants of the era saw the style as the perfect medium of declaring how much wealth they had.  The style, called garish and contradictory by some, attempted to put art on every surface it could be put on.  The castle in the city of Dresden and Versailles were perfect examples of the Baroque era, jamming sculptures and gilding into every surface that it could be jammed into.

Versailles’ famous Hall of Mirrors, oddly enough, starving French citizens thought this kind of extravagance was enough to warrant a revolution.

I’m making Art History a new category.  I’ll get to the other fun stuff later (Dadaism, if you have never seen it, was made famous from a French dude who put a fake name on a urinal and called it “art”.  People were either astonished by the inventiveness of his breaking of the meta or they were offended by his tacky hack-work that he claimed he could make art by declaring it as such.)