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Ukiyo-e

Japanese Edo Period (1600s to 1867)

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Ukiyo-e (pronounced oo-kee-oh-ay) was a style of popular art in Japan during the Edo period, inexpensive and usually depicting scenes from everyday life. Ukiyo translates as "floating world" - an ironic wordplay on the Buddhist name for the earthly plane, "the sorrowful world". Ukiyo was the name given to the lifestyle in Japan's urban centers - the fashions, the high life, and the pleasures of the flesh, in other words portraying the shifting fashions and unstable lives of common people and of actors, courtesans, and other inhabitants of the country's amusement districts, parodying Buddhist proverbs about the fickle, transient nature of worldly existence. Ukiyo-e is the art documenting this era. 

The founder of the Ukiyo-e school is considered to be the 17th-century artist Hishikawa Moronobu. Among the most famous artists who followed were Hiroshige, Hokusai, Korin, Kiyonaga, and Hoitsu, all featured on the below 2 sets and 1 sheet of modern Japanese stamps.   

Ukiyo-e is especially known for its exquisite woodblock prints. The style coincides with the prosperous Edo period (1600-1868), when publishers adapted book-printing techniques developed over centuries to mass-produce inexpensive images for the urban merchants and tradesmen who flourished under the rule of the Tokugawa dynasty of shoguns. Artists provided designs for the prints, which were then cut into cherrywood blocks and printed by skilled craftsmen; up to 10,000 copies could be printed from each block before it wore out. Ukiyo-e artists also painted in similar manners, but print design always set the style. As well as decoration, the Ukiyo-e medium provided fashion illustrations, picture calendars, greeting cards, illustrated books, travel and entertainment guides, pornography, and promotional material for the kabuki theatres, brothels, teahouses, and restaurants frequented by the Edo chonin (townspeople). 

Japan 1997. Scott 2580-2585. Set #1. Japan 1997. Scott 2580-2585. Set #2. Japan 1997. Scott 2580-2585. Set #3.

The predecessors of the Ukiyo-e prints, dating from the 1650s, were book illustrations, especially associated with the popular guides to the entertainment districts and the shunga (spring pictures) sex manuals. Around the 1680s the painter and book illustrator Hishikawa Moronobu founded the Ukiyo-e school with his hand-coloured prints, revolutionizing the print form. He adapted traditional painting techniques to the medium of the woodblock print, producing about 100 illustrated books and about 50 shunga, as well as numerous paintings, broadsheets, and views of famous places. Next the single-sheet print became prominent around 1700, a process inaugurated by Torrii Kiyonaga (see sheet below) and associated with the development of kabuki, whose theatrical posturings featured in dramatic designs. Ukiyo-e reached artistic maturity after the advent, in the 1740s, of the true colour print, in which 2 or 3—and by the 1760s, up to 20 or 30—separate woodblocks were used to colour a single print with impressive subtlety. The new technique depended on using notches and wedges to hold the paper in place and keep the successive colour printings in register. In 1765 full-colour calendars commissioned by wealthy poetry clubs and piquantly designed by Suzuki Harunobu caused an immense stir: these nishiki-e (brocade pictures) inaugurated the golden age of Ukiyo-e and marked the triumph of the single-sheet print. 

Japan 1958. Scott 646.

Harunobu's successors expanded the range of Ukiyo-e subjects, explored new pictorial techniques involving brilliant mica backgrounds and textured papers, spread their designs horizontally across two or three sheets, and developed a new grandeur and monumentality in their figure compositions. The expansive outdoor scenes and stately beauties of Torii Kiyonaga set new standards, but Kitagawa Utamaro is most associated with Ukiyo-e's golden age, especially because of his brilliant and sensitive depiction of women in all situations of life, including their occupations and leisure activities. The brilliant yet incredibly brief career of Toshusai Sharaku, who worked for a few months from 1794 to 1795, brought psychological insight into the genre of actor portraits. After its peak in around 1800, Ukiyo-e art changed sharply and somewhat declined, with coarser designs and cruder compositions, partly because print runs had grown and the buying public had become broader and less discriminating. More sophisticated connoisseurs favoured the surimono (printed things), elegant designs printed on high-quality paper to special order, used as gifts or private stationery and often employing artistic styles outside the Ukiyo-e school.

Partly as a response to censorship by the Tokugawa authorities, who faced growing civil unrest, the Ukiyo-e school later diversified into landscape. Katsushika Hokusai began the trend with his Fugaku sanjurokkei (Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji, 1823). Significantly, he worked in other styles of painting and draughtsmanship outside the Ukiyo-e mainstream, and he introduced landscape techniques and Prussian blue pigment originally developed in Western art. Ando Hiroshige was his principal rival in depicting the famous places of Japan. By the 1850s the traditional kabuki scenes and depictions of prostitutes were becoming ever more decadent and grotesque, though this period still boasted some notable artists, especially Utagawa Kuniyoshi. Some Ukiyo-e artists continued working into the later 19th century, but essentially the school ended with the demise of its closed, tightly knit parent culture in the Meiji Restoration.

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Many thanks to Ono Ito (Japan) for all help and research.  


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