Waitress Okita from the Naniwaya Tearoom - Utamaro
The name of this art form literally means pictures of the floating world. The term 'floating world' refers to a generally hedonistic way
of life, and was often used as a euphemism for the bars and houses
of ill-repute which were so popular among artists and literary
types in pre-war Japan. Ukiyo-e wood-block prints first appeared
early in the Edo Period (1600~1868) and depicted stories set in this after-hours world.
Flashy kabuki actors and stylish courtesans were the most popular
subjects. Later artists started depicting scenes from nature and
works such as Hokusai's views of Mt. Fuji (see below) are among the most famous today.
The prints were a collaboration between artist, publisher, wood-block
carver and printer although they are almost always accredited
to the artist and publisher only.
Ukiyo-e were often used for book illustrations but really came
into their own as single-sheet prints. They played a role much
like modern-day pulp fiction and thanks to a rapidly increasing
level of literacy, became extremely popular among the middle class.
Another role was that of posters for the kabuki theater, which was also rapidly gaining in popularity. Ukiyo-e
also played their part in the development of Western art in the
late 19th century, influencing such important artists as Van Gogh,
Monet, Degas and Klimt.
In the mid-18th century, techniques were developed to allow full-color
printing and the ukiyo-e which we see reproduced today on post
cards and calendars date from this period on. Utamaro and Hokusai are the big names from this period, and other prominent
artists include Hiroshige and Sharaku.
Kitagawa Utamaro (1753~1806) is famous for his depictions of beautiful
women from the tearooms (above), shops and pleasure quarters of
Edo. He also designed some of the most beautifully illustrated
books in the history of ukiyo-e.
Katsushika Hokusai (1760~1849) is best known for his nature scenes
and his series 'Thirty-six Views of Mt. Fuji'. This series started
a whole new style of landscape ukiyo-e. The famous illustration
of a giant wave engulfing fishing boats, with Mt. Fuji merely
a background detail (top right), is one of the most familiar Japanese
works of art.
Ukiyo-e remain part of the Japanese cultural identity today and
elements of the more famous works are often incorporated into
modern art and design. Reproductions can be picked up for a very
reasonable price in souvenir shops. They make excellent souveniers
for anyone who wants to take home something quintessentially Japanese
Beneath the Waves off Kanagawa (from the series '36 Views of Mt. Fuji', 1831) - Hokusai
Kambara (from the series '53 Stations of the Tokaido Road', 1833~4) -
For a good, and entertaining, read about what remained of the
Edo entertainment districts in the first half of this century,
you could do worse than check out Kazuo Ishiguro's novel 'Artist of the Floating World', short-listed for the
Booker Prize in 1986. The writer grew up in the UK and writes