What is Ukiyo-e?
You might have heard “ukiyo-e (浮世絵)” if you are interested in art or history of Japan. Even if you have not heard it, you might see it while you travel in Japan because it is well-known art in Japan. First of all, the word “ukiyoe” consists of “ukiyo (浮世)” and “e (絵)” in Japanese, and they mean “reality” and “drawing” each. Therefore ukiyo-e means drawing which illustrate reality of the world at that time, in Edo period which is from 16th century to 19th century.
The history of ukiyo-e began with later 16th century and drawing was about daily life of people, which was different theme from its history because models of drawing were usually famous people such as emperor before 16th century. However in Edo period, living standard of middle class people had improved and could afford amusement like ukiyo-e, so ukiyo-e became very popular while Edo period, especially 18th century. In addition to improvement of living standard of normal people, another reason why it became so popular is that it focuses on people’s life which made mass sympathize ukiyo-e. After introduction here, this article picks up 4 famous ukiyo-e artist below.
#1. Utamaro Kitagawa (喜多川歌麿)
He is one of the most highly regarded practitioners especially for his portraits of beautiful women, or bijin-ga. Utamaro’s work reached Europe in the mid-nineteenth century, where it was very popular, enjoying particular acclaim in France. He influenced the European Impressionists, particularly with his use of partial views and his emphasis on light and shade, which they imitated. The reference to the “Japanese influence” among these artists often refers to the work of Utamaro. One of his masterpieces is “Three Beauties of the Present Day”, which triangular composition depicts the busts of three celebrity beauties of the time: geisha Tomimoto Toyohina, and teahouse waitresses Naniwa Kita and Takashima Hisa.
#2. Tōshūsai Sharaku (東洲斎写楽)
Sharaku is known for his portraits of kabuki actors. Primarily portraits of kabuki actors, Sharaku’s compositions emphasize poses of dynamism and energy, and display a realism unusual for prints of the time—contemporaries such as Utamaro represented their subjects with an idealized beauty, while Sharaku did not shy from showing unflattering details. In his actor prints Sharaku usually depicts a single figure with a focus on facial expression. To Muneshige Narazaki, Sharaku was able “to depict, within a single print, two or three levels of character revealed in the single moment of action forming the climax to a scene or performance”. Occasionally two figures appear, revealing a contrast of types, as of different facial shapes, or a beautiful face contrasted with one more plain.
#3. Utagawa Hiroshige (歌川広重)
Hiroshige is best known for his landscapes, such as 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 of his work were atypical of the ukiyo-e genre, whose typical focus was on beautiful women, popular actors, and other scenes of the urban pleasure districts of Japan’s Edo period. The popular Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji series by Hokusai, who is introduced next, was a strong influence on Hiroshige’s choice of subject, though Hiroshige’s approach was more poetic and ambient than Hokusai’s bolder, more formal prints.
#4. Katsushika Hokusai (葛飾北斎)
Hokusai was influenced by Chinese paintings and he is best known as author of the woodblock print series Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji, which includes the internationally recognized print, The Great Wave off Kanagawa, created during the 1820s. Hokusai created the “Thirty-Six Views” both as a response to a domestic travel boom and as part of a personal obsession with Mount Fuji. It was this series, specifically The Great Wave print and Fine Wind, Clear Morning, that secured Hokusai’s fame both in Japan and overseas. Hokusai has also executed erotic depictions. Such paintings were called shunga. Shunga (春画) is a term for erotic depictions, which was enjoyed by both men and women of all classes. Superstitions and customs surrounding shunga suggest as much; in the same way that it was considered a lucky charm against death for a samurai to carry shunga, it was considered a protection against fire in merchant warehouses and the home.