Talk about Japanese pop culture today, and people will likely mention anime, manga or Japanese pop music, which has spread all over the world, winning Japanese culture many fans as well as profoundly influencing art and music of other cultures. However, did you know that a different Japanese “pop culture” already went overseas in the 17th century, similarly leaving an indelible mark on other famous art movements to come.
This would be Ukiyo-e, a genre of paintings and woodblock prints that illustrated the more extravagant lives of higher class Japanese people of Edo period. Because of the interesting, and in some cases sensual, subject matter as well as the distinctively Japanese artistic style, Ukiyo-e quickly spread and won many admirers in the western world.
What makes ukiyo-e: The painting subject
The subject – Celebrity life
Ukiyo-e 浮世絵, is literally translated to floating world painting.
As the Edo period began, civil war ended, livelihoods became stable, the economy expanded rapidly, benefiting all but especially the upper classes. With more money and no war to fight, they were able to spend their wealth on leisure and pleasurable pursuits.
The term floating world was popularly used at the time to describe, with a hint of derision, the hedonistic lifestyle of these upper classes, counting amongst them samurai, sumo wrestlers, courtesans, kabuki actors; because they seemed to wafting aimlessly, wasting their lives and money away in a pleasurable haze.
The extravagancy of the wealthy still captured the imagination of the artists and the common folk, who were keen to discuss these ongoing depicted on the ukiyo-e. Those who could afford it, from the middle merchant classes onwards, would purchase the ukiyo-e and displayed them at home as conversational pieces. If this sounds somewhat like modern day celebrity pop culture – you would be exactly right! Ukiyo-e was truly Japanese pop culture of the Edo period.
The subject – Natural landscapes
Reforms of the 19th century sought to stifle the depicts of excess and luxury, however, and a subgenre of ukiyo-e paintings quickly gained popularity replacing the original, celebrity focused works: paintings of iconic scenes of nature.
By nature, this meant subjects as mundane as simple flora or fauna, small pebbles and lakes; to majestic scenes of whole mountains and valleys as well as crashing waves and snowy whiteland.
Pieces featuring Natural landscapes have become the prevailing perception of ukiyo-e by global audiences, because after two decades of constant refinement in technique, the landscape based ukiyo-e of this era was created with the highest technical standards. In particular, this era boasted two definitive masters of Ukiyo: Katsushiki Hokusai and Utagawa Hiroshige, whose works became representative of the entire art genre.
What makes ukiyo-e: A Japanese aesthetic
Ukiyo-e is stylistically recognizable by the presence of a bold thick flat line.
Linework is the essence of ukiyo-e, and defining coloured areas, delinating compositions and seperating areas of different depth.
The standard ukiyo-e would be arranged with a single flat plane, and the aforementioned lines and colors will be used to add movement and momentum to the plane. Tricks such as asymmetry and skewed viewpoints also were also used for this purpose. For scenes with people, they would be in dynamic twisted poses for a similar reason.
Even in scenes with nature, the nature would be dynamically composed – case in point the famous “The Great Wave off Kanagawa Coast” by Katsushiki Houksai – a piece depicted nothing but waves, but with such vivid positioning one can see the sea coming to life.
As color print became more common and well done, ukiyo-e prints became awash with bright colours, but unfailingly delineated by the aforementioned linework.
A selection of famous ukiyo-e artists
The most famous ukiyo-e artist of all time, Hokusai has become representative of the entire ukiyo-e genre. Hokusai came onto the scene in the early 19th century, and specialized in scenes of nature in Japan.
In particular, Hokusai is known for his work “Thirty Six Views of Mount Fuji”, two of which “The Great Wave off Kanagawa” and “Red Fuji” stand amongst the most recognizable pieces of any art in the world.
Known the last great master of Ukiyo-e, Hiroshige I similarly specialized in landscape drawings in the waning days of Ukiyo-e. Compared to Hokusai, Hiroshige I is known as being more subtle, and is famed for using colour gradation in his works – which was a tedious process.
Hiroshige I produced the famous works : “The Fifty-three stations of the Tokaido” and “One Hundred Famous Views of Edo”. Famously, Hiroshige I’s works were studied by western greats such as Monet and Vincent Van Gogh. The latter even painted a copy of Hiroshige’s “Plum Garden at Kameido”.
Here we have one of the earliest masters of Ukiyo-e. As is common in the early era, Utamaro rose to prominence with his drawings of beautiful women. As his fame grew, Utamaro’s drawings moved away from group pictures of individual large head shots (much like individual billboards) of beauties, sometimes commissions of courtesans of the Yoshiwara pleasure quarters.
Technically, Utamaro is praised for mastering facial features and expressions for his drawings of beauties, achieved by his constant experimentation and refinement with line and colour to depict minor differences between each subject.
Utamaro’s work include “Renowned Beauties from the Six Best Houses” and “Ten Physiognomies of Women”. Overseas, Utamaro is named as a major influence by French Impressionist painters.
A truly enigmatic figure in the Ukiyo-e world, Sharaku’s career lasted only 10 months, and the artist’s identity has never been confirmed. In this 10 months however, Sharaku’s dynamic and energetic rendering of Kabuki actors catapult him to great heights. Today, Sharaku’s renderings are still widely considered some of the best Ukiyo-e human drawings, and the best featuring Kabuki actors.
Keisai Eisen was another master famed for his drawings of beautiful women in the 18th Century early era of Ukiyo-e. Where Utamaro moved towards larger headshots and mastered depiction of the female face, Eisen thrived in the opposite direction.
Staying true to full body portaits of the Edo beautifies, Eisen became renowned for furnishing lavish detail of the Kimono worn by his subjects. Eisen’s works won praise for accurately depicting the fashion of the time, earning him the moniker “The decadent” from audiences, models and grateful kimono makers.