Discover the traditional Japanese art of woodblock printing
Ukiyo-e is a genre of Japanese art that became popular in the 17th century through to the 19th century. The word roughly translates as “pictures of the floating world” and artists belonging to the movement produced woodblock prints and paintings of scenes from history and folktales, sumo wrestlers, landscapes of flora and fauna, and a touch of erotica.
Artists rarely carved their own woodblocks for printing and instead production was divided between: the artist, who designed the prints; the carver, who cut the woodblocks; the printer, who inked and pressed the woodblocks onto hand-made paper; and finally the publisher, who financed, promoted and distributed the works. All printing was done by hand, allowing for effects like blending or gradation of colors, which weren't achievable using machines.
To get a sense of the impact the movement had, we take a look at the artists who popularized Ukiyo-e and are now seen as masters of the style.
Katsushika Hokusai, 1760-1849
Katsushika Hokusai was a Japanese artist and he is best known as the author of the woodblock print series Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji, which includes the iconic print, The Great Wave Off Kanagawa. The series was created as part of his own personal obsession with the Japanese mountain but also as a response to a domestic travel boom at the time. The series made Hokusai famous in both Japan and internationally.
Hokusai was also the first artist to use the term “manga”, originally it roughly meant random drawings but it now more commonly associated with a style of Japanese comic. The artist created Hokusai Manga in 1811, which contained amusing drawings for his students to copy.
Utagawa Hiroshige, 1797-1858
Utagawa Hiroshige is considered the last great master of Ukiyo-e. He is best known for his landscape works, specifically the series The Fifty-three Stations of the Tōkaidō and The Sixty-nine Stations of the Kiso Kaidō, and for his depictions of birds and flowers.
The subjects Hiroshige chose were atypical of the ukiyo-e genre, and he adopted a more poetic approach compared to Hokusai for instance, whose style was bolder and formal. Western artists closely studied Hiroshige’s compositions and when he died in 1858, there was a rapid decline in ukiyo-e genre. But his influence was still felt in 19th century western painting, as part of the trend in Japonism – the study of Japanese art and artistic talent.
Utagawa Kunisada, 1786-1865
Utagawa Kunisada was the most popular, prolific and commercially successful designer of the Ukiyo-e period and his total output is estimated at more than 20,000 designs. Kunisada continuously developed his style, which sometimes radically changed, and did not adhere to stylistic constraints set by any of his contemporaries.
His subjects were usually of kabuki dancers, actors, sumo wrestlers and portraits of beautiful women. While regarded as a master of the genre, with some of his prints ranked among the best masterpieces of Ukiyo-e, many of his works are also simply seen as mediocre. This inconsistency is often reflected in the art market with prints fetching for varying amounts of money.
Kobayashi Kiyochika, 1847-1915
Kobayashi Kiyochika's work is the best demonstration of the rapid modernization and Westernization that Japan went through during the Meiji period. The Meiji period was a time denoting the first half of the Empire of Japan, during which Japanese society moved from being an isolated feudal society to its modern form. Throughout Kiyochika’s work he employs a sense of light and shade called “kōsen-ga”, inspired by Western art techniques.
Woodblock printing fell out of favor during Kiyochika’s time of working, which is why many consider his work as the last significant example of Ukiyo-e. Kiyochika himself moved away from printing and instead spent the last few years of his career focusing on painting and being inspired by other forms like photography.
Tsukioka Yoshitoshi, 1839-1892
Tsukioka Yoshitoshi's career spanned two eras, the last years of the Edo period in Japan and the first years of modern Japan following the Meiji Restoration. Yoshitoshi was interested in new things from the rest of the world, but over time he became increasingly worried about the decline of traditional Japanese culture, including woodblock printing.
The artist continued on working in the old manner, while much of the country was adopting Western mass reproduction methods like photography and lithography. Due to his perseverance, Yoshitoshi, managed to single handedly push the Ukiyo-e genre to a new level before he died in 1892.
Kitagawa Utamaro, 1753-1806
Kitagawa Utamaro is best known for his bijin ōkubi-e prints (translated as large-headed pictures of beautiful women) of the 1790s and he also produced detailed nature studies, particularly illustrated books of insects. Little is known of Utamaro’s personal life, despite being one of the very few Ukiyo-e artists to achieve fame throughout Japan in his lifetime.
In his career, it’s thought he produced over 2,000 known prints and his work reached Europe in the mid-19th century, where it became very popular. His work was particularly popular in France, where he went on to influence the Impressionists, through his use of partial views and his emphasis on light and shade, which they imitated. In fact, often when a “Japanese influence” is cited among this group of artists, it typically refers to Utamaro’s work.
Tōshūsai Sharaku, active 1794-1795
Tōshūsai Sharaku is one of the most elusive artists of the Ukiyo-e period, with his true name nor the dates of his birth or death being known. Despite being seen as a master of the style, Sharaku didn’t follow the traditional route of taking up an apprenticeship with an established school to learn his craft and as a result has drawn much speculation. What’s more strange is that his career as a woodblock artist seems to only span ten months. At the time, his work was met with disapproval and then came to an end as suddenly and as mysteriously as it had appeared.
He is admired for his prints of kabuki actors, with his compositions often including emphasized poses that felt dynamic and full of energy, with a sense of realism which was unusual for the style. The difference between Sharaku and his contemporaries was that the artist did not shy away from unflattering details. Others aimed to present an idealized beauty, and it’s why his work was initially met with disapproval.