No. 54  Find the Type of Ukiyo-e That Suits You

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Ukiyo-e blossomed as an art of the townspeople in the Edo period (1603~1868) and Meiji period (~1912). With the spread of woodblock printing, full-color pictures—something previously available only to the upper class—could be purchased for the price of a bowl of noodles. People pasted the prints to columns and fusuma doors in their houses and treasured them like publicity stills of popular actors. These days, ukiyo-e is hard to understand for many Japanese, who regard it as “something viewed in an art museum.” With just a little knowledge, however, ukiyo-e can become familiar and accessible.

Suzuki Harunobu, “Narcissus” (1768), Ota Memorial Museum of Art

Toshusai Sharaku, “Ichikawa Ebizo IV as Takemura Sadanoshin,” (1794), Ota Memorial Museum of Art

Capturing the Latest Trends

One of Mr. Watanabe’s favorite prints. It shows the bustle of shoppers at Mitsui Echigoya kimono store where Mitsui Department Store now stands. Utagawa Hiroshige, “One Hundred Views of Famous Places in Edo – Suruga Street” (1856), Ota Memorial Museum of Art

Zoos, boat cruising in Edo, specters, and cross-dressing . . . These are some of the themes of exhibitions this year at Ota Memorial Museum of Art in Harajuku, Tokyo’s foremost ukiyo-e museum. Because ukiyo-e prints are sensitive to light, exhibition periods must be limited to one month. Hence, the museum holds monthly exhibitions of ukiyo-e under selected themes, carefully choosing suitable prints primarily from its collection of some 14,000 pieces. Theme selection is where a curator shows his or her skill. “Animals and specters are subjects children want to see. Cruising around Edo reflects a plan to promote boat travel in Tokyo for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics Paralympics. Cross-dressing is attuned to LGBT issues” (Akira Watanabe, senior curator). Ota Memorial Museum of Art also holds Katsushika Hokusai exhibitions and exhibitions of scholarly merit, but like ukiyo-e prints, these too look closely at society and people’s needs.
Ukiyo-e portray popular subjects of all kinds—the pleasure district, Kabuki actors, seasonal events, and landscapes. The publisher (“hanmoto”) thought hard about what people wanted to see and asked an artist (“e-shi”) to create a design image. The labor was a collaboration of four artisans: the publisher who handled the publishing company, the artist who made the design image, the woodcarver (“hori-shi”) who carved the blocks, and the printer (“suri-shi”) who applied paint to the block and printed the impression. Multicolored prints, created by taking impressions from separate woodblocks carved for each color, were called “nishiki-e” (brocade pictures). Among the most famous publishers was Tsutaya Juzaburo. A superb planner, Tsutaya had many successes publishing such artists as Utamaro and Sharaku.
Ukiyo-e produced many popular artists in its 300 years of history. Prominent among them are Suzuki Harunobu, the first artist to produce multi-colored nishiki-e prints, Torii Kiyonaga, who created pictures of beautiful women (“bijinga”) in a realistic style, and Kitagawa Utamaro, the peerless ukiyo-e genius. They were followed by the mysterious artist Toshusai Sharaku, whose “Okubi-e” close-up portraits of actors took Edo by storm, the eccentric Katsushika Hokusai, famed for his “Thirty-six Views of Mt. Fuji,” and the great landscape artist Utagawa Hiroshige, creator of “The Fifty-three Stations of the Tokkaido.” These are the six great ukiyo-e artists. Meanwhile, artists whose careers sank after issuing one poorly selling print are innumerable. Reading a book outlining the history of ukiyo-e will familiarize you with its important artists, genres, and historical transitions.

Omocha Yoshifuji

Ukiyo-e has many genres, though most are not as well-known as actor prints or pictures of beautiful women. One of them is “omocha-e” (toy prints), ukiyo-e prints for children to play with. These prints were intended to be cut up and pasted, so they generally did not last long. Many young artists started out by creating them.
“The artist known as ‘Omocha Yoshifuji’ (‘Toy Yoshifuji,’ actual name, Utagawa Yoshifuji) built a flourishing career creating omocha-e, says Kana Murase, curator at the Machida City Museum of Graphic Arts. “Many of his works still survive, so we know that he produced them until his late years. Having won fame as the top omocha-e artist, he no doubt decided to stay in that field.” These words offer insight into the life of Yoshifuji, who refined the distinctive character of omocha-e and created his own unique world.

Utagawa Yoshifuji, “Cats at Banquet Hall” (early Meiji period), Ota Memorial Museum of Art

How Edo-period and Meiji-period Ukiyo-e Differ

One of Ms. Murase’s favorite prints. While evincing the technical mastery of Edo-period ukiyo-e, it introduces the new Meiji-period woman. Yoshu Chikanobu, “True Beauty – Young Girl under a Parasol” (1897), Machida City Museum of Graphic Arts

We asked Ms. Murase about the secret to enjoying ukiyo-e. “Imagine the feel of the Japanese paper. Also, look at different ukiyo-e prints to find the period you like best.” Ukiyo-e were printed on sheets of Japanese paper (slightly smaller than B4-size) that people held in their hands. Imagining their texture also helps you think about the work of the woodcarver and printer.
Ms. Murase also explained the difference between Edo-period ukiyo-e and that of Meiji. “Whereas Edo-period ukiyo-e is characterized by flat perspective, Meiji-period ukiyo-e absorbed the influence of Western painting, so people are depicted with greater realism using light and shadow. The compositions are also innovative. Then, because of the arrival of new paints, the colors are brighter.” Under the influence of Westernization, ukiyo-e lost its anti-establishment spirit and connection with ordinary people, and faced an existential crisis. In those circumstances, artists such as Kobayashi Kiyochika and Tsukioka Yoshitoshi—the final bloom of ukiyo-e—left us remarkable works.

Along with its breadth, power of portrayal, and striking compositions, ukiyo-e also offers the human drama of its artists and fans. In a word, ukiyo-e is “big-hearted.” Find a print or artist you like, and you will surely fall under ukiyo-e’s spell.

Kobayashi Kiyochika, “Ryōgoku-bashi Bridge in Civilized Tokyo” (1877-82), Ota Memorial Museum of Art

Updated: October 26, 2017