Ukiyo-e ”Pictures of the floating world” (Japanese)

The Ukiyo-e art form developed during the Edo Period of Japanese History, in the capital of Japan, Edo (modern day Tokyo). Prior to the 17th century, art had mainly been reserved exclusively for the upper classes, as the cost of producing it was so great. Ukiyo-e changed this by using the wood-block printing technique. Pictures were now mass-produced, reaching a far wider part of the population.

Originally, Ukiyo-e was produced in black and white with just one block. However with the use of a Chinese technique, they were later produced in colour using multiple blocks. Like any print, they were (and still are) produced by building the picture up in layers. The picture was printed first as a basic line drawing. Then the colours and detail, such as a kimono pattern, were added one colour at a time. The result was an exquisite print that could be produced time and time again.

As the translation suggests, Ukiyo-e was greatly orientated around pleasure and amusement. Pictures of geisha and courtesans were a regular feature, as were scenes of the pleasure quarters such as the Yoshiwara. It was rarely pornographic, but delicately romantic, with varying degrees of sensuality. For example, it might provide a memento of a visit to a teahouse and the night that followed. Men could brag and make their friends envious of the beauty that they had socialised with, or even bedded. Men would even buy them as early “pin-ups”, or to pretend that they had been able to afford an evening out.

Women also bought Ukiyo-e prints. Some depicted famous actors of Kabuki theatre and wrestlers. The prints also showed women wearing the latest styles of kimono and obi, as well as the latest hairstyles. It often helped women in provincial areas to keep up-to-date with the current fashion of the time.

Ukiyo-e also depicted somewhat more normal events and scenes. Festivals and street scenes were also fairly common sights, as were theatres and even restaurants. Artists such as Ando Hiroshige produced prints of landscapes that because quickly became famous. Fuji-san is one of the most popular scenes, as were bodies of water such as rivers and waterfalls.

Sources:
Ukiyo-e, 250 years of Japanese art, Roni Neuer and Susugu Yoshida

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