June 6, 2017

Traditional Japanese Art: The Floating World of Ukiyo-e

Japanese art includes a wide range of styles and media, such as ancient pottery, sculpture, ink painting, calligraphy, architecture, landscape, comic, and the list goes on. One of the most distinct traditional Japanese art is ukiyo-e.

Ukiyo-e, typically produced as paintings or as woodblock prints , thrived during the Edo Period (1603 - 1868). Literally meaning “pictures of the floating world,” subjects were usually associated with detachment from ordinary life.  These subjects included popular geisha, sumo wrestlers, and kabuki actors from the entertainment world. Landscapes that were added to the subject matter later also became well received. 

The end of the Edo Period signified Japan opening its doors to Western technology like photography, which led to the decrease of interest in ukiyo-e within Japan. But opening its doors to the Western world led to ukiyo-e influencing many Impressionist painters in Europe such as Degas, Manet, Monet, and van Gogh. 

Some of the influential ukiyo-e artists include Hokusai, Utamaro, and Hiroshige.

Katsushika Hokusai (1760 - 1849) is one of the most famous ukiyo-e artist. Hokusai monumentally revolutionized the medium by introducing landscapes and images of daily life in Japan. Hokusai’s best-known work is the series, Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji, in which contains the piece, The Great Wave off Kanagawa, a piece that remains one of the most universally recognized icons of Japanese art. 

Ukiyo-e_Hokusai, traditional Japanese arts
Katsushige Hokusai, The Great Wave off Kanagawa, 1829 - 1833

Kitagawa Utamaro (1753 - 1806) is another famous ukiyo-e artist. Utamaro is best known for his portrayals of beautiful women with exaggerated features. He is also known for going against the law by creating ukiyo-e paintings depicting military rulers, which was contrary to the censorship laws which forbade the portrayal of military heroes in prints. His most prominent work that was censored was Hideyoshi and his Five Wives Viewing the Cherry-blossoms at Higashiyama. 

Utamaro_Hideyoshi, Japanese arts & crafts
Kitagawa Utamaro, Hideyoshi and his Five Wives Viewing the Cherry-blossoms at Higashiyama, 1802 - 1804

Utagawa Hiroshige (1797 - 1858) is another ukiyo-e artist best known for his atypical subjects of landscapes, birds, and flowers. His famous works include series, The Fifty-three Stations of the Tokaido and The Sixty-nine Stations of the Kiso Kaido. The Edo period ended not too long after Hiroshige’s death and westernization followed, thus he is considered the last great master of the ukiyo-e world. 

Hiroshige_Tokaido_Shinagawa, traditional Japanese Art
Utagawa Hiroshige, 1st Station: Shinagawa from series The Fifty-three Stations of the Tokaido, 1833 - 1834


The three artists and a few of their works we have introduced is a small percentage in the vast world of ukiyo-e. Stay tuned for more ukiyo-e artists and other traditional Japanese artists featured in our blog!


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