Ukiyo-e means literally floating world picture - uki (floating) - yo (world) - e (picture). It is the general term for a genre of Japanese woodblock prints produced between the seventeenth and the twentieth century.
The first ukiyo-e were produced in black and white in the seventeenth century. There was however a demand for color and the first colored prints were produced by adding coloring to the finished b/w print with a brush. But that was too expensive and time-consuming. Okomura Masanobu and Suzuki Harunobu are said to have been the first to introduce multi-color prints by using more than one block - one block for each different color.
Ukiyo-e during its time was not considered as fine art but rather as commercial art. These woodblock prints were largely commissioned by the Kabuki and Noh-Theaters and by actors as a form of advertising. It was not before the twentieth century that the Japanese began regarding Japanese woodblock prints as an art form worth collecting. The Europeans, mainly the Dutch and the French, discovered the Japanese prints and their artistic value at the end of the nineteenth century, when large numbers of ukiyo-e were imported to Europe.
The term of ukiyo-e as it is used in literature and in daily use by art people, has different scopes. Some mean only art prints of the classical Edo period by such classical masters like Hokusai Katsushika or Ando Hiroshige or Utamaro Kitagawa when they speak of ukioy-e. Others use it as a synonym for Japanese woodblock prints, and others see the term as a synonym for all kinds of Japanese prints.
Following the broadest definition, ukiyo-e can be categorized into several different art periods and movements.
Edo is the classical period of ukiyo-e and lasted from 1603 until the official end in 1868. Japan was reigned by the clan of the Tokugawa and experienced a period of peace but also of political oppression and a complete seclusion from the rest of the world. On the other hand, the merchant class flourished and the emphasis was on worldly pleasures. The so-called pleasure-quarters and the theaters were booming. This was the ideal nourishing ground for woodblock prints.
The Meiji period began with the end of the Tokugawa shogunate and the restoration of the emperor as the real power. Japan was suddenly forced to open itself towards the rest of the world. It was a cultural shock.
Prints produced during this period are a reflection of these dramatic changes. The natural plant colors were replaced by chemical aniline dyes imported from Germany. After 1900 the art of traditional Japanese woodblock prints was commercially dying out. It had been replaced by photography.
The Shin Hanga art movement meant the revival of ukiyo-e as an art form. The promoter of Shin Hanga was Watanabe, a publisher who gathered a few starving artists around him. He gave them commissions for prints and mainly exported these art prints to the United States - with success.
Shin Hanga mixed traditional ukiyo-e subject with some Western elements, namely the use of light and perspective.
Shin Hanga was a renaissance of the Japanese print as an art form but not as a form of commercial art for the masses as traditional ukiyo-e was.
The Sosaku Hanga movement followed a new concept of what an artist should be. In traditional ukiyo-e printmaking process was strictly separated. The design, the carving, the printing and the publishing was done by different and highly specialized people.
The Sosaku Hanga artists thought that the artist should be personally involved in all these stages. Not only the Sosaku Hanga theory but also their painting style were closer to Western ideals.
The Sosaku Hanga movement never really gained popularity in the public. And while Shin Hanga prints are very popular among collectors, Sosaku Hanga has remained a small (but fine) market niche.
After world war II printmaking in Japan became more international. Western techniques like etching or silkscreen were adopted by Japanese artists.
But woodblock printmaking remained the major printmaking technique in Japan. It even became popular among Western artists. Many Western artists went for training to Japan to learn the old Japanese way how to make book pages and art prints. Foremost to mention are Toshi Yoshida, the son of Hiroshi Yoshida and Tomikichiro Tokuriki. Both maintained art schools that were attended by many Western artists like Carol Jessen, Micah Schwaberow or Daniel Kelly to name just a few.
This international movement of making woodblock prints in old ukiyo-e tradition has established itself under the name of moku hanga. Artists like Paul Binnie from Scotland, Ryusei Okamoto from Japan, Matt Brown in the USA, or Tom Kristensen with for instance his Kaiju Manga woodblock prints. in Australia are typical exponents of this movement.
In spite of all ups and downs, ukiyo-e has remained a vivid art movement appreciated and collected by art lovers all over the world.
Author: Dieter Wanczura