Ukiyo-e Art: Timeless Art of Japanese Traditional Prints

Ukiyo-e Art: Timeless Art of Japanese Traditional Prints

This Japanese traditional art genre, known for its intricate woodblock prints and vibrant colours emerged during Japan's Edo period (17th-19th century) andholds a rich history that continues to leave an indelible mark on art and culture.

Let's delve into the essence of Ukiyo-e, its historical roots, prominent artists, and its profound influence on modern artistic expressions.

Japanese horse by Seizan Aoyama

The Birth of Ukiyo-e: Origins and Lifestyle

The inception of Ukiyo-e traces back to the flourishing city of Edo (now Tokyo) during the 17th century. The chōnin class, comprised of merchants, craftsmen, and workers, embraced a hedonistic lifestyle characterized by indulgence in entertainment like kabuki theatre, geisha, and courtesans. This way of life, known as 'ukiyo' or 'floating world,' fueled the demand for artworks depicting these vibrant scenes. Woodblock prints and paintings emerged as a favored medium to adorn the homes of the prosperous chōnin class.

Ukiyo-e prints transported viewers to a world of fleeting moments, where beauty and fantasy were brought to life on paper.

Itsutomi by Eishi Hosoda 1793



Artistic Evolution: From Monochrome to Vibrant Colors

The earliest Ukiyo-e works appeared in the 1670s, led by Hishikawa Moronobu's monochromatic prints portraying elegant women. Over time, color prints gained prominence, initially reserved for special commissions. By the mid-18th century, artists like Okumura Masanobu introduced multi-block techniques for creating vibrant color prints. Suzuki Harunobu's success with "brocade prints" in the 1760s marked a pivotal moment, popularizing full-colour production using multiple blocks.

Masters of Ukiyo-e: Beauty and Elegance

Ukiyo-e witnessed the rise of master artists who defined its aesthetic excellence. Torii Kiyonaga, Utamaro, and Sharaku gained acclaim for their portraits of beauties and actors in the late 18th century. The 19th century showcased legendary figures like Hokusai, celebrated for "The Great Wave off Kanagawa," and Hiroshige, renowned for "The Fifty-three Stations of the Tōkaidō." and Satta sea works. Their works captured the essence of Japanese landscapes, securing their place in art history.

Utagawa Hiroshige Whirlpools at Naruto (1853)

A Changing Landscape: Modernization and Decline

The 19th century brought seismic shifts with the Meiji Restoration, leading to modernization and a decline in Ukiyo-e production. Despite this, the 20th century witnessed a revival in Japanese printmaking. The 'shin-hanga' movement catered to Western interest in traditional scenes, while 'sōsaku-hanga' promoted individualistic creations made by a single artist. This revival breathed new life into Ukiyo-e, employing techniques from the West.Moorhens by Soseki Komori 1929

Hokusai and Hiroshige: Masters of Interpretation

Hokusai's distinctive approach to Ukiyo-e stood out through bold, flat colours, and abstract compositions. His iconic "The Great Wave off Kanagawa" and "Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji" showcased his unique vision. Hiroshige, Hokusai's rival, excelled in serene landscapes and travel series, imbuing his works with subtle colours and atmospheric elements. Their contributions shaped Ukiyo-e's legacy.

Kojima zu  or small island by unknown Ukiyo e artist

Ukiyo-e and the Dawn of Impressionism: A Creative Symbiosis

Ukiyo-e's visual language resonated profoundly with the Impressionist movement. The genre's flat compositions, vivid colours, and focus on ephemeral moments found kinship with the Impressionists' pursuit of capturing transient scenes. Notably, Monet's "Japanese Bridge" and Degas' "The Bath" reflect the unmistakable influence of Ukiyo-e's aesthetics. The unique style, vibrant compositions, and narrative elements of Ukiyo-e found a new home in the works of these celebrated creators.

Japonisme: A Cross-Cultural Fascination

The allure of Ukiyo-e prints extended beyond visual arts, sparking a cultural fascination known as Japonisme. Western collectors and artists embraced Japanese aesthetics, integrating motifs and techniques into their creations. This wave of influence extended to literature, fashion, and interior design, encapsulating the global impact of Ukiyo-e art.

Ukiyo-e's Influence on the West: Japonisme and Beyond

Ukiyo-e played a pivotal role in shaping Western perceptions of Japanese art during the late 19th century. Hokusai's and Hiroshige's landscapes captured Western imagination and inspired renowned artists like Edgar Degas,  Édouard Manet, Claude Monet, Vincent van Gogh and latterly Whistler, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and Pierre Bonnard.

The Japonisme movement, characterized by a fascination with Japanese aesthetics, left an indelible mark on Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art.
Monet's famous bridge over a pond of waterlilies is a nod to Bridge in the Rain attributed to Hiroshige. Edgar Degas used Japanese compositional devices to depict women bathing and a more direct style influence in Riviere Funeral Umbrellas (below). 

Van Gogh was especially passionate about Japanese art and traditions and they influenced the development of his style, notably his vivid colours, simplified planar forms, and use of decorative surface patterns. Like many artists associated with Art Nouveau, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec was greatly affected by Japanese art and design using flat forms, powerful contour design, and dramatic use of black shapes

Edgar Degas in the era of Japonismemonet bridge over a pond of waterlilles and Bridge in the rain

Ukiyo-e's Timeless Resonance: A Journey into the Contemporary

The legacy of Ukiyo-e endures through the ages, continuing to inspire contemporary art and design (for example Debussy's 'la Mer' is quite obviously inspired by the great wave when the original cover artwork is included!).

Debussy's la mer 1905

Museums around the world proudly showcase these prints, preserving their historical significance and aesthetic charm. 

Japanese art had significant effects on both Western decorative arts and the evolution of new artistic styles associated with Modern art. The distinctive style of Japanese art — decorative use of colour, surface patterning, and asymmetrical compositions — offered striking new approaches to modern artists developing alternatives to the Western tradition of naturalistic representation.

Ukiyo-e's legacy endures as museums showcase these timeless prints, preserving their historical significance. The spirit of Ukiyo-e lives on in contemporary art and design, with artists continuing to explore the genre's themes and techniques. 

Lelloliving's Curated Ukiyo-e Collection: Reviving Tradition

At Lelloliving, we invite you to explore our curated collection of framed Japanese prints that pay homage to the elegance of Ukiyo-e art. Our selection features works by celebrated artists such as Katsushika Hokusai, Banfuku Ono, Korin, Ohara Koson prints, Hiroshige prints and more. Immerse yourself in the vibrant colours and timeless narratives that continue to enchant art enthusiasts worldwide.

Banfuku ono

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