Ukiyo-e ~ Floating World Picture
Many of the Japanese art prints on my side bar and included in my Nakasendo Walk series are Ukiyo-e prints.
This art form rose to great popularity in the Edo period, from 1600 to 1868, which is the time of the samurai when the Nakasendo Way became heavily utilized. At this time Japan was under the rule of the shogunate and virtually isolated from the rest of the world.
Ukiyo-e means floating world picture and refers to the pleasures of theatres, restaurants, teahouses, geisha and courtesans in the large city of Edo, present day Tokyo.
Ukiyo-e is a general term for a genre of Japanese woodblock prints produced in this time. It was a period in Japanese history of rapid urbanisation and the development of a class of merchants and artisans, who began writing stories and painting pictures and compiling books in need of illustration.
Utamaro and Sharaku were in fact posters for kabuki and Noh theatre, illustrations for novels, advertisements for brothels, idol portraits of popular actors and beautiful tea house girls.
Many activities from city life were depicted in ukiyo-e: bulky sumo wrestlers, beautiful courtesans, also sexually explicit shunga for which artists and publishers were sometimes punished. Postcards and guidebooks also made use of ukiyo-e.
Ukiyo-e was considered to be commercial art rather than fine art and the Japanese were rather taken aback when Westerners later valued ukiyo-e as fine art. It was not until the 20th century that the Japanese themselves, after the interest from abroad, particularly from the Dutch and the French, began to value ukiyo-e as art worth collecting.
This world of urban pleasures was offset by the Japanese traditional love of nature -landscapes, birds and flowers, and Japanese ukiyo-e artists like Hokusai, Kunisada and Hiroshige had an enormous impact on painting all over the world.
One of the main reasons for the popularity of ukiyo-e prints was that they were affordable because they were mass produced which meant that you did not need to be wealthy to afford an original painting. For the price of a bowl of noodles you could own a woodblock print.
The first ukiyo-e were produced in black and white. Hishikawa Moronobu, was one of the original artists and was the most important ukiyo-e artist of his life time, 1618-1694.
Okomura Masanobu and Suzuki Harunobu are said to be the first colour artists of colour prints called nishiki-e.
Although the artist was given credit for the final ukiyo-e print it was really a collaborative effort between the artist, his apprentices, the carver, printer, publisher and distributors, all working in concert.