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Ukiyoe Art Style During Period Of Japanese Isolationism History Essay

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Published: Mon, 5 Dec 2016

Ukiyo-e was an art style that came out of a period of Japanese isolationism beginning in the 18th century. Ukiyo-e itself translates from the Japanese to “pictures of the floating world. The movement was centered in Edo, then the capital city of Japan. The emergence of ukiyo-e took place during the Edo period, thus named for the capital. This period in Japanese history lasted between 1603 and 1868. During this time, an individual’s position in the social order was determined based on inherited position, meaning there was little option outside of what station in life one was born into. As one might expect, this bred a society that was highly formalized and very strict in its social rules. The upper echelon of Edo period society was naturally the Emperor and directly below him was the nobles and important court officials. As this was still a feudal society, the Shogun and daimyo occupied a lofty position in the social order of the day as well. The population at large was segmented into four class based groups. The first group was the samurai, who made up roughly five percent of the population of a city. They were the military nobility and were an extension of the Feudal lords. Eighty percent of a city’s population consisted of what were considered peasants; these were the people that would make up the bulk of society and lived in rural areas. The peasants would typically work the land for the feudal lords in return for being allowed to live on the land. The social rung below the peasants were those who knew a craft and made things. The very lowest section of Edo period society was merchants (Beasley, 1972).

Even outside of the four social classes, there were still lower social strata. These were individuals who professions put them lower than even the lowest social class. These were individuals who were so low in society that many of the upper classes refused to acknowledge their existence. These lower then low class individual were the undertakers, butchers, and tanners town guards, street cleaners and executioners. They were supposed to be invisible and were considered by some to not even be people. Entertainers, prostitutes and other street dwellers were likewise not counted as belonging to a social group because they were for too low down to count as anything. These social outsiders were relegated to having to exist solely in specially designated areas of the city. When these outsiders did mage to unite and for m a village of their own, they were often not even registered as existing on the official maps of the area.

Ukiyo-e became a very popular art form because the works produced were not expensive due to their ability to be reproduced with demand. This opened up the availability of art to the common man. Before the emergence of ukiyo-e, the only people who owned art were those who were affluent enough to commission the production of a painting or sculpture. The typical subject of an ukiyo-e piece was depicting city life, typically that which could be found in Edo, as it was the major city in Japan at that time. Ukiyo-e would also typically focus on the goings on in the parts of the city where entertainment could be found, such as the theater or a sporting event. Popular actors of the day, athletes, and courtesans would frequently find their way into the ukiyo-e prints as the subject they depicted. As the art form progressed and evolved, depictions of life in the city made way for the widespread depiction of nature and landscapes. Ukiyo-e typically featured only individuals seen as belonging to the lowest aspect of contemporary Japanese society. Those of the higher rungs of society, politician or nobility were not commonly depicted in them because ukiyo-e was seen as something for the common people and depicting those of the higher classes was frowned upon.

The actual process of producing an ukiyo-e print begins with the Ukiyo-e artist produced an ink drawing that will serve as template for the final print. After the original drawing is completed, the artist hands it off to an assistant, known as a ‘hikko’, to make a copy of the original done by tracing the original work onto a fresh paper. Next, that tracing, known as a ‘hanshita’, is then glued onto a block of wood and the parts of the work that will be printed are cut away from the block, leaving a reversed image on the wood to be printed. The newly minted block is then inked and test prints of the line art are made for the artist to ensure everything has gone well. If the artist approves the test prints, they are then glued onto individual blocks and the parts of the drawing that are intended to print in certain colors are cut away so that you are left with blocks that represent individual colors in the final work. Each individual block is then inked with the particular color of ink and is pressed onto the paper, one by one to create the final work. The artist used marks on the block to ensure that each successive bock is lined up with the previous, thereby ensuring all the colors are aligned with each other. If an artist wanted to obtain a certain tone of color, they would often print that one color several time until the desired shade is obtained.

Ukiyo-e as an art form is synonymous with the name Katsushika Hokusai, or as he is better known, simply Hokusai. Hokusai was born in October 1760 in a suburb of Edo called Honjo. Hokusai demonstrated an aptitude for the artistic form at an early age. At the age of six Hokusai had already begun to produce works (Weston, 1999). At the age of 14, Hokusai published his first printed work, a set of portraits of actors from the kabuki theater after two years spent as an apprentice under an Ukiyo-e master named Shunsho. Hokusai was not yet using his true name, and published his set of portraits under the name of Katsukawa Shunro, a name taken to honor his master. Hokusai spent another two years studying under master Shunsho, Eight years after the release of his first published work; Hokusai published his first book of illustrations.

In 1780, after nearly a decade under master Shunsho, Hokusai left him to begin study under a new master, the artist Yusen Hironobu. It took Hokusai another two decades before he settled on a style on which to focus on. Hokusai settled on the producing Surimono, which were works of art specifically created with the intent of being given away to serve as a greeting or announcement. Surimono were usually relatively small, most commonly only measuring about eight inches by seven. What made Surimonos unique were that they could not be purchased, they had to be individually produced by an artist specifically for the person receiving it, typically friends or associates of the artist. During the time he was producing surimono Hokusai adopted the name for which he would become known for the rest of his life, Hokusai.

Hokusai was most active in the period from 1780, when he left his first master, to about 1849, when he died. In this period Hokusai was credited for having illustrated nearly 500 books and creating nearly 30,000 individual works (Weston, 1999). If one work could be considered Hokusai’s seminal work, it would have been ‘Fugaku Sanju’ or ’36 views of Mount Fuji’. It was a series of 46 prints created between 1826 and 1833 that depicted Mount Fuji in different seasons and weather conditions from a variety of different vantage points and from varying distances. The most famous image from this set is ‘Kanagawa-oki nami-ura’ or ‘The Great Wave off Kanagawa’. The piece depicts a large wave where three boats can be seen being tossed about by the wave with Mount Fuji in the background.

Hokusai had a long and incredibly fruitful career as an artist, but despite this, was plagued with the desire to produce better and better work. Hokusai died at the age of 89. It is said that as he was dying he said “If only Heaven will give me just another ten years… Just another five more years, then I could become a real painter.”

Utagawa Hiroshige is considered by many art historians to be the last of the Ukiyo-e masters. Hiroshige was born in Edo in 1797. Hiroshige’s father was official within the fire-fighting organization whose duty was to protect Edo Castle from fire. He lost his mother and father at a young age and was given his father’s position as a fireman after his death (Fahr-Becker, 2007). Hiroshige spent two years as a fireman before leaving the profession to become an artist and to study under the tutelage of the ukiyo-e master Toyohiro (Fahr-Becker, 2007). Hiroshige became a quick study and after only a short time of working under his master he was given pseudonym to work under, that of Utagawa Hiroshige. This was a great honor, especially for one who was so relatively new to the craft. At the age of 22 Hiroshige published his first book of illustrations and he began studying several different styles of art, both the Shijo and Kano styles of ukiyo-e (Fahr-Becker, 2007). After nearly two decades of studying under him and working for him, Hirshige’s master died. As a way of honoring his master, Hiroshige took over his late master’s print shop and also took his master’s name as his new artist name, now calling himself Toyohiro II (Fahr-Becker, 2007).

While he had been working under his master, Hiroshige’s body of work consisted mostly of images of courtesan and actors from the kabuki theater, but after his master’s passing his work began to stray from the conventional subjects and move into things like natural scenes and landscapes. It was at this time that he decided to devote himself completely to producing images of landscapes. Hiroshige had some minor success in this area with his series of prints entitled ‘Famous Places in the Eastern Capital’. Hiroshige did not come in to prominence as an ukiyo-e artist until he released his series of prints entitled ’53 Stations on the Tokaido’, a series that depicted various locations along the imperial road between Edo and Kyoto. The series came out of a trip he took on behalf of the government as part of an official delegation transporting a symbolic gift of horses to the Imperial court in Kyoto (Oka, 1992). Hiroshige was asked to produce works depicting various ceremonies he saw on his trip to serve as a visual record of them. In a career that spanned forty years Hiroshige produced over 5,400 works of art (Fahr-Becker, 2007).

At the age of 59 Hiroshige retired from the art world to become a Buddhist monk. It was this change in lifestyle that spurred him to began his final, and what many consider to be his greatest work, a series of prints entitled ‘Meisho Edo Hyakkei ‘ or ‘One Hundred Famous Views of Edo’. ‘One Hundred Famous Views of Edo’ depicts the Japanese capital city though the four seasons with various different locations around the city and different vantage points. Hiroshige died three years after becoming a monk during a cholera epidemic, leaving is great body of work as his enduring legacy.

As an art form, Ukiyo-e was influential, not only domestically, but also internationally. Once Japan’s period of self imposed isolationism was suspended and trade with other countries was re-established Western artists began to see the art that was coming out of Japan and realized something that had been missing from Western art for a long time. The ukiyo-e’s style of large flat areas of color colors ignited the passion of many artists and began something called Japonism, which was the desire to adapt this new Asian style with the pre existing artisit styles. Ukiyo-e also helped to inspire the European impressionist movement and

Work Cited

Beasley, W. G. The Meiji Restoration. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press. 1972

Fahr-Becker, Gabriele. Japanese Prints. Los Angeles, California. Taschen. 2007.

Oka, Isaburo. Hiroshige: Japan’s Great Landscape Artist. Kodansha International. 1992.

“Ukiyo-e.” The Oxford Dictionary of Art. 2004. 29 March 2011 .

Weston, Mark. Giants of Japan: The Lives of Japan’s Most Influential Men and Women. New York: Kodansha International. 1999.

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