The Japanese woodblock art printing of Ukiyo-e
Pictures of the floating world
The beginning of Ukiyo-eXylography is a printing method from wooden blocks, loaned from China. Introduced in Japan in seventh century, first it was used primarily in the spiritual sphere: many Buddhist texts and images were reproduced by this method.
Mass production in woodblock printing developed much later due to political processes within the country. In 1603, Tokugawa Ieyasu received the title of shogun and founded the Tokugawa shogunate, choosing provincial Edo as its capital (for he had his residence in there). So a village in the swamp became a new capital of Japan. And it is so up until now, although we know this city as Tokyo.
Edo grew rapidly, and the merchant class at the bottom of the Japanese social order benefitted mostly from the city’s quick economic growth. It was the main target audience of the cheap prints which every citizen could afford: the cost of a print was as much as the price of a noodles cup at the time. Whereas traditional Japanese painting still remained expensive and only chosen ones could afford it.
Exciting picturesWoodblock prints have become colored not at once. Initially prints were made in a format of black-and-white books. Color in prints has come gradually. At first, the vermilion — a mixture of sulfur and mercury — was added in prints by hand. It has given an orange-reddish color (also known as the "Chinese red"). Wild saffron produced a deeper shade of red. Some artists used a black lacquer to color the woodblock prints.
Technical questionsIn contrast to the easel painting, where an artist is the one and only creator, the woodblock printing involves a row of masters. Moreover, an artist has not always taken a leading position in it. He was appointed to make an ink drawing on a transparent paper. However, the end result depended on the skills of a woodcarver or even of several of them.
Modern reconstruction of woodblock printing. Step One: sketches that mark zones of different colors, each is to be cut on a separate wooden block.
Photos of the reconstruction here and below: mokuhankan.com
And the finishing touch was made by the seal of a censor, who checked all the woodblocks for compliance with laws prohibiting to depict state or military figures, as well as to illustrate the historical or contemporary events.
From erotic to ghostsThe number of themes and subjects in the ukiyo-e initially was quite limited. Above all, there were lots of posters, advertising theatrical performances of popular Kabuki actors (such pictures called yakusha-e) and bijin-ga — "pictures of beautiful women." The last ones were devoted primarily to courtesans and geisha girls from teahouses, advertising their services. Later appeared musha-e ("warrior prints") and surimono — "printed thing," a term used for privately issued or commissioned ukiyo-e. They were often printed on small, nearly square sheets of high-quality paper in limited edition commissioned by wealthy people to commemorate special events, holidays or to announce important public performances or for personal occasions.
Illustrations of tales, myths and legends, the worse, the better were in great demand. The Japanese love stories about ghosts and monsters, and this is reflected in the woodblock prints. Recognized artists have even created series, such as "100 Ghost Stories" by Katsushika Hokusai. Just look at one sheet from this series dedicated to the most famous Japanese ghost — Onryō - The Ghost of Oiwa (Oiwa-san)!
Ukiyo-e artists:Utagawa Hiroshige, Hishikawa Moronobu, Suzuki Harunobu, Katsushika Hokusai, Utagawa Kuniyoshi, Kitagawa Utamaro, Kawanabe Kyōsai, Utagawa Kunisada, Tsukioka Yoshitoshi, Keisai Eisen, Toyohara Kunichika, Ogata Gekkō, Hasui Kawase.
Most famous ukiyo-e prints:'The Great Wave off Kanagawa' by Katsushika Hokusai is one of the most replicable images in fine arts that one can meet in the most unexpected places: from logos to street sculptures.
'Three Beauties of the Present Day' by Kitagawa Utamaro, a print that preserved for eternity the faces of three most popular girls in Edo at the moment the woodblock print was made — Tomimoto Toyohina, Naniwaya Kita, Takashima Hisa.
And also 'The Plum Garden in Kameido' and 'Sudden Shower over Shin-Ōhashi Bridge and Atake' by Utagawa Hiroshige (Ando) which would seem so familiar to Vincent Van Gogh’s fans, who has repainted them (in his own manner, of course) when he was fond of the Japanese woodblock art printing.
Please read about the past and present history of these four works on their pages.
You're a layman, if:— you consider that the word "uki-e" is misspelled. Literally it means "painting of relief." The Japanese gave this particular name to the ukiyo-e prints in which an effect of depth was produced. Those pieces were so different from the rest of Japanese paintings because the artists used the Western geometrical perspective.
You're an expert, if:— you can define 10 additional sheets from the renowned series "Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji" by Katsushika Hokusai by checking their contour lines. Unlike the first woodblock prints, their contours are colored in a black, not in a dark blue paint.
Main illustration: Katsushika Hokusai, South Wind, Clear Sky (Red Fuji).