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Ukiyo-e Japanese Prints

Ukiyo-e Japanese Prints Collage

Started: 1672

Ended: 1880s

"When I was 50 I had published a universe of designs, but all I have done before the age of 70 is not worth bothering with. At 75, I'll have learned something of the pattern of nature, of animals, of plants, of trees, birds, fish and insects. When I am 80, you will see real progress. At 90, I shall have cut my way deeply into the mystery of life itself. At 100 I shall be a marvelous artist. At 110, everything I create - a dot, a line - will jump to life as never before."


Summary of Ukiyo-e Japanese Prints

Ukiyo-e, often translated as "pictures of the floating world," refers to Japanese paintings and woodblock prints that originally depicted the cities' pleasure districts during the Edo Period, when the sensual attributes of life were encouraged amongst a tranquil existence under the peaceful rule of the Shoguns. These idyllic narratives not only document the leisure activities and climate of the era, they also depict the decidedly Japanese aesthetics of beauty, poetry, nature, spirituality, love, and sex.

Key Ideas

The people and environments in which the higher classes emerged themselves became the popular subjects for ukiyo-e works. This included sumo wrestlers, courtesans, the actors of kabuki theatre, geishas and teahouse mistresses, warriors, and other characters from the literature and folklore of the time.
By combining uki for sadness and yo for life, the word ukiyo-e originally reflected the Buddhist concept of life as a transitory illusion, involving a cycle of birth, suffering, death, and rebirth. But ironically, during the early Edo period, another ideograph which meant "to float," similarly pronounced as uki, came into usage, and the term became associated with wafting on life's worldly pleasures.
Ukiyo-e prints were often depicted on Japanese screens or scrolls, lending to their narrative feel. Although different artists brought their own signature styles, the pictures were weaved by a common look and feel that utilized aerial perspectives, precise details, clear outlines, and flat color, furthering the earlier yamato-e tradition of Japanese art.
Many subgenres blossomed beneath ukiyo-e's artistic umbrella to become known as its primary motifs. This included imagery of beautiful women, erotica, portraits of subjects with big heads, bird and flower pictures, and renditions of iconic natural landscapes such as Mount Fuji.
Ukiyo-e was one of the first forms of Japanese art that found its way across the seas to Europe and America with the opening of trade between the countries. The influence that this exposure had upon the West became known as Japonism, defined by an interest in the aesthetics of the style that would go on to profoundly influence many Western artists and movements such as Impressionism, Art Nouveau, and Modernism.
While in the beginning, ukiyo-e's was defined by a collaborative four person woodblock printing process, the movement's artists would soon come to revolutionize the creative use of printing through experimentations with material, color, mineral, and line to become an ancient forebear to the country's contemporary art movements such as Superflat.
Detail from Hokusai's <i>South Wind, Clear Sky</i>, also known as <i>Red Fuji</i>, from the series <i>Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji</i> (1830-32). Following this series, he worked on the <i>One Hundred Views of Mount Fuji</i> series.

Announcing, “I used to call myself Hokusai, but today I sign my self ‘The Old Man Mad About Art,’” Hokusai created his One Hundred Views of Mount Fuji. The inexhaustible master was 74.

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