The Floating World of Ukiyo-e

The Floating World of Ukiyo-e

Cherry blossoms float serenely across a pastoral landscape, Mt. Fuji can be seen in the distance. A beautiful woman paints her face while wrapped in an intricately patterned kimono. Kabuki actors strike a fierce pose on the stage of a packed theatre. Iconic scenes like these probably bring a specific art style to your mind. Ukiyo-e, the Japanese art form of woodblock prints and painting. The style has been so influential we still see its impact on modern art of today.

Hokusai's red Fuji, fine wind clear morning.Hokusai's 'Red Fuji, Fine Wind Clear Morning'.

Where did it all begin? The Edo period (1603-1868) in Japan brought much cultural change. It was a time when samurai's ruled, elaborate social structures were enacted, the outside world was cut off, and the economy thrived. Arts and culture were pushed to the forefront as aesthetics were studied in everyday objects and actions. Many of the artistic styles we associate with Japan can be traced back to this period such as bonsai, geisha, kabuki, and of course ukiyo-e. So much growth happened within this era it is hard to capture it here.

"Floating world pictures" is what ukiyo-e roughly translates to. It started out depicting the hedonistic lifestyle of Japan's cities. Artists sought to capture the beautiful and complex underbelly of Japanese nightlife. Women who worked in the pleasure districts were some of the first subjects of ukiyo-e prints. Hishikawa Moronobu is considered to be the first master of ukiyo-e, depicting women in stylized kimonos on stark flat backgrounds. His work was considered risque' by subtly hinting at erotic situations through poses, the way a kimono was tied, or with blossoming flowers that hinted at a man's sexuality. Famous kabuki actors were immortalized in ukiyo-e style portraits. This style of art became popular among the merchant class who now had the buying power to collect artwork and decorate their homes.

Utagawa Kunisada's Three Kabuki Actors.Kunisada's 'Three Kabuki Actors'.

The landscapes that are most associated with ukiyo-e in western culture did not become popular until the 1770s, when Utagawa Toyoharu produced a number of scenic prints. He founded 'Utagawa School' which became the most influential ukiyo-e school, most famously attended by Utagawa Hiroshige who's work would later be studied by Vincent van Gogh. Hiroshige was in turn inspired by the most famous ukiyo-e artist of all time, Katsushika Hokusai. Hokusai is the creator of 'The Great Wave Off Kanagawa' which has spawned thousands of tributes and parodies. His work is most likely what you think of when you imagine ukiyo-e art. Hokusai's bold, flat, graphic depictions of Mt. Fuji, pastoral scenes, and working class people changed the direction of art history. European artists such as Dega, Gauguin, Klimt, and Manet were avid collectors of his work.

Hokusai's 'The Great Wave Off Kanagawa'.Hokusai's 'The Great Wave Off Kanagawa'.

How is ukiyo-e made? Ukiyo-e can either be painted or printed. Painting offered a wider range of colors and surfaces. Bold contour lines were achieved by using sumi ink. Woodblock prints are the more well known technique that defined the style. Artists would work in a team with the labor divided among them. Ukiyo-e prints were all done by hand. An artist would design the print which would be pasted onto a block of cherry wood, providing a guide for the woodcarvers. The original drawing being destroyed in the process. Carvers would cut away all of the non-black areas, leaving raised wooden areas that were then inked by the printers. Printers used various techniques such as embossing, burnishing, varnishing, and overprinting to create the desired effect. A different carved wooden block was used for each individual color!


Ukiyo-e is one of the first forms of mass produced art. Wood blocks could be used over and over again to create the same piece or offer new variants of the same artwork with different coloring. Publishers were a large part of the process as they commissioned, promoted, and distributed the prints. Only the original artist and publisher were credited on the finished prints. Print designers would apprentice for years before becoming the head designer. Prints would sometimes be used to advertise new kimono designs. Often prints were stamped as part of a set, prompting collectors to purchase the rest of the series as it was released. Many of these sales tactics are still used today. 

You can see the largest collection of ukiyo-e at the 'Ukiyo-e Museum' in the city of Matsumoto Japan which features 100,000 pieces. Ukiyo-e revolutionized the way artistic compositions are laid out and the way color and linework are used. Everything from fine art to comic books have been touched by ukiyo-e's influence. Where do you see ukiyo-e's impact in your life?

Kuniyoshi's Takiyasha the Witch and the Skeleton Spectre.Kuniyoshi's 'Takiyasha the Witch and the Skelton Spectre'.

Cheers,
Miranda and the Popkiller Team 🎏

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