Japanese prints

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    Ukiyo-e (image of the floating world) is a Japanese artistic concept that first appeared during the Edo period. It is a print made thanks to xylography and whose themes represent the Japanese urban lifestyle. The main precursors of this art are Hokusai , Utamaro, Hiroshige, Watanabe, and many others.

    Japanese ukiyo-e prints have known several generations of artists, which testify to its timelessness. Being a fan of Japanese art, we would be delighted to help you get to know this artistic process better.

    Here is some important information to know about the origin of Japanese print and the Ukiyo-e artistic trend:

    • The origin of the Japanese ukiyo-e print
    • The steps of making the Japanese print
    • How to recognize an original print
    • The different generations of ukiyo-e artists
    • The themes of this Japanese print
    • The main artists of ukiyo-e
    • The Influence of Ukiyo-e on Western Art
    • The appearance of ukiyo-e in popular culture

    If you're ready to discover this Japanese art, then we can go. But first, here is a short history lesson on its origin.

    Origin of the Japanese Ukiyo-e print

    From the Buddhist point of view, ukiyo (floating world) refers to an imaginary universe where we feel grief and bitterness. It was towards the end of the 17th century that it appeared under the writing Ukiyo-e (image of the floating world). Although it takes up Buddhist thought, it turns away from a theme of sadness, in favor of pleasure.

    Indeed, ukiyo-e highlights the Japanese way of life during the Edo period. Ukiyo-e art is gaining momentum in Yoshiwara, a reserved neighborhood created during the Tokugawa Shogunate. This place, made up of brothels or kabuki theaters, becomes an entertainment center for the middle class.

    This Japanese print also makes its appearance in Osaka or, in Kyoto. The main themes of this art are geisha, samurai, rikishis (sumo wrestlers) and sometimes, landscapes. In her novel entitled Ukiyo Monogarari, Asai Ryoi gives a personal definition of this Japanese art.

    The steps of making the Japanese print

    Xylography is a technique of printing that originated in China and is becoming very popular in the East. It is a woodcut used to introduce Buddhism to the Japanese archipelago. Indeed, the prints made refer to the sutras (Buddhist principle).

    Subsequently, this graphic art became popular and reached its golden age during the Edo period, thanks to polychromy. However, this boom is born thanks to the emergence of social classes (merchants and artisans) established by the Tokugawa shogun. From then on, many illustrations see the light of day, such as that of courtesans or landscapes.

    Making a print requires several technical skills. We can cite:

    • The draftsman : he is the one who designs the artistic masterpiece. He makes a shita-e (ink drawing) and once finished, he sends it to the engraver. For example, we can mention Hokusai, an emblematic cartoonist
    • The engraver : his mission is to transpose the drawing on wooden boards. It thus realizes the forms that allow the reproduction of the image. To put it simply, he places the ink drawing on the wooden board, and engrave it all with his tools. At this stage, the original paper made by the draftsman is destroyed.
    • The printer : this is the last step in production. The role of the latter is to do the inking of the lines and colors on the board then, to print on the paper in order to obtain the image. It starts with black lines, then on colors ranging from lightest to darker. The paper that is moistened is deposited on the shapes, then pressed onto it thanks to a traditional pad (baren). In order to adjust the colors for each proof, the printer makes use of the timing marks
    • The publisher : now that the print is finished, it is time to sell. The publisher is the one that brings together the draftsman, the printer and the engraver, but it is also he who places the print on the market. As a famous publisher, we can mention Tsutaya

    The different generations of ukiyo-e artists

    Over the years, ukiyo-e evolves from a simple artistic concept to a real work of art, and over time, we discover several generations of Japanese print artists.

    The First Generation: Ukiyo-e during the Edo Period (1600 — 1869)

    At the time of the Tokugawa shogunate, the capital of Japan was called Edo (present-day Tokyo ). In 1640, he established a policy of autarky and promulgated a law that prohibited the Japanese from leaving the territory. Conversely, this law prohibited the entry of Westerners into Japanese territory, the punishment could be a death sentence.

    During this era, two types of graphic representation can be distinguished, namely traditional painting and print. The first graphic work is appreciated by aristocrats while the second, is loved by the merchant class. The print represents the urban lifestyle of the chonins in the pleasure district of Edo.

    From then on, ukiyo-e illustrates geisha, courtesans, kabuki actors and even landscapes. Utamaro, Hokusai and Hiroshige are considered the emblematic figures of ukiyo-e print. It was during this period that the Japanese print took the name of Ukiyo-e, meaning “ image of the floating world ”.

    The Second Generation: Ukiyo-e during the Meiji Era (1869 — 1912)

    Under the pressure exerted by American forces in 1853 and 1854, the shogun decided to abandon his policy and open the borders. Japan opens up to the world of the West and quickly, the Meiji Revolution appears. Concerned to be dominated by Western power, Japan is westernized and gives a new image of print.

    One of the best represented artists of that time is Kiyochika Kobayashi, a Japanese photographer and painter . He uses Western illustration techniques along with that of ukiyo-e to form what is called Meiji print. From 1870, ukiyo-e degraded and became vulgar, giving its place to photography.

    The third generation: Shin Hanga style (new engraving from 1910-1960)

    This is the renewed art of the 20th century with the cause, the influence of the West on Japanese customs. Traditional print is abandoned in favor of photography, which is in full growth. In 1905, Shozaburo Watanabe, a young Japanese publisher, had the idea of creating a new style of Japanese print.

    It will therefore bring together the traditional staff ( draftsman , printer and engraver), and use his own artistic logic. The themes chosen remain those of ukiyo-e with the difference that they are realized with a western touch. In 1921, he used the term “Shin Hanga"to highlight the renewal of style.

    The main themes of Japanese print

    There are several themes represented in the art of Japanese ukiyo-e print . So we're going to make you discover each of them in this part.

    Pretty Women's Paintings

    Still called “bijin-ga”, this is the theme that has been most illustrated by ukiyo-e artists. It is an exclusive representation of courtesans , one of the important social figures in feudal Japan. Courtesans in feudal times, are women famous for their beauty.

    The courtesans strongly marked the Japanese print, from the 17th century until the 20th century. Utamaro is one of the artists who have represented courtesans the most.


    Shunga (spring image) are Japanese prints dealing with eroticism . They also appear during the Edo era, and are subject to censorship by law. Most of the works dealing with this theme refer to Yoshiwara, the pleasure district of Edo.

    Among the greatest ukiyo-e artists who have dealt with this theme are: Utamaro, Hokusai and Hiroshige. In 1804, Utamaro published a guide on brothel customs, which greatly contributed to its reputation. He was well known in France where in 1891 he was nicknamed “the painter of brothels"by Edmond de Goncourt.

    Calendar images

    Still called e-goyomi, these prints made are actually Japanese calendars. The precise idea of their design comes because of the difficulty in understanding the Japanese lunar calendar. Finally, e-goyomi will bypass this complexity by revealing through luxurious prints , the coming long months.

    Apart from its utilitarian role, e-goyomi was a kind of mind game for literature enthusiasts. Indeed, during the realization of the print, the artist skillfully conceals the figures that indicate the long months. These figures were camouflaged most of the time, in the geometric designs of a kimono belt.

    Still in the design, the artist adds references to Japanese culture or to legends of the Far East. They were hidden in parodies (mitate) that represents the original legend. We can cite the parody of the broken carriage of Utamaro or a parody of the three wise men (Confucius, Buddha, Lao-tzu).

    Kabuki Theater and Sumo Wrestlers

    Apart from courtesans in the pleasure district (Yoshiwara), kabuki is a major theme for ukiyo-e artists. Japanese print advertises theaters and increases the notoriety of its actors. These images could be perceived as theatre programs or then, a representation of the play in which the actor plays.

    The ukiyo-e also represented sumo wrestlers as seen with Buncho and Koryusai who made the first portraits. Shunsho and Shun'ei followed, using their experience on designing portraits of actors to make, sumotoris. Subsequently, it is the turn of Hokusai and Utamaro, to take an interest in the portraits of these wrestlers.

    The fantastic

    This theme appears in Hokusai's sketchbooks , as well as at Utamaro. He is also present at Hiroshige through his print The Hundred Views of Edo. It shows a meeting of yokai in the middle of the night, under a tree in Ōji and accompanied by wisp lights.

    Ukiyo-zōshi and Ugetsu monogatari are fantastic literary tales written by Ueda Akinari. They were represented in film in 1953 by Kenji Mizoguchi.

    The Japanese Ukiyo-e Landscapes

    The arrival of Western painting techniques influences other Japanese ukiyo-e artists. They assimilated them and, around the 19th century, began to represent the landscapes of the Japanese archipelago. Using famous lives, Hokusai and Hiroshige begin the prints of Japan's most beautiful sites.

    Among the works of Hokusai and Hiroshige, the most famous representations of landscapes are:

    • Thirty-six views of Mount Fuji by Hokusai and subsequently by Hiroshige
    • Famous views of the eastern capital , made by Hokusai
    • Eight views of Edo , directed by Hokusai
    • One Hundred Views of Mount Fuji , Made by Hokusai
    • One hundred views of Edo, directed by Hiroshige
    • Views of famous sites in the sixty and a few provinces of Japan , from Hiroshige
    • The fifty-three stations of Tōkaidō , realized by Hiroshige
    • The sixty-nine stations of the Kiso Kaidō , realized by Hiroshige

    The main artists of ukiyo-e

    The Japanese print that is ukiyo-e has known a series of talented craftsmen . Among these, some stand out thanks to their timeless works. We can cite:

    • Hishikawa Monorobu (1618-1694) : he was the first and greatest artist of early print. He was a draftsman, a painter or an illustrator developing prints on wood, whose prints are in black ink (sumizuri-e). He is the first to sign his works, in order to assert their authenticity.
    • Kitagawa Utamaro (1754-1806) : he was a student of Toriyama Sekiyen and the best known of Japanese print artists, after Hokusai. He makes illustrations for books, including The Book of Insects. But he is much better known for having made magnificent portraits of female beauties, especially courtesans. Indeed, most of his works are devoted to the animation of Yoshiwara, the pleasure district of the city of Edo
    • Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849): of all Japanese cartoonists, he is the most famous in France. He is nicknamed the Old Man Crazy of Drawing because even at an advanced age, he has not stopped working and improving. He was inspired by the elders of Japanese print and Western masters, then cultivated many genres including portraits, landscapes, etc. The Great Wave of Kanagawa is his masterpiece, and the most famous print in the world
    • Motonaga Hiroshige (1797-1858) : it is with this very famous name that the page in the history of Japanese prints closes. He develops a poetic style by drawing inspiration from Hokusai's works and shots of Mount Fuji. His greatest work, famous and timeless, is the Opus The Fifty-Three Stations of Tōkaidō

    The Influence of Ukiyo-e on Western Art

    The West only discovered ukiyo-e art and Japanese art very late, during the Universal Exhibition in Paris in 1867. It is therefore in France that this influence will be the most striking and that in this way, amateurs made beautiful collections. For the Westerner, the light realism and vigor of Hokusai, is the most successful artistic expression of Japanese art.

    However, studies conducted on the pioneers of Japanese pictorial art, characterize Japanese aesthetics as noble and elegant. Ernest Fenollosa was the first to give full reviews on ukiyo-e. If photography supplants ukiyo-e in Japan, thus making it go into a fashion, it was the opposite in the West that undergoes, Japonism .

    Thus, the image of ukiyo-e becomes a source of inspiration for the West and many painters adopt it, including Monet, Van Gogh , Klimt. Hayashi was one of the main ambassadors of ukiyo-e in France, providing supplies to collectors of Japanese art. Indeed, French artists appreciated Japanese art, including Claude Monet who has a large collection of Japanese prints.

    The appearance of ukiyo-e in popular culture

    It is rare to see these works that remind us of the fine days of ukiyo-e and its emblematic artists. However, we can give you some sources included in Japanese popular culture :

    • Five Women Around Utamaro, is a film released in 1946 by Kenji Mizoguchi and whose theme is about the courtesans of the ukiyo-e, of which Utamaro was the main artist
    • The seinen Kyōjin Kankei (crazy passions) , is a manga released between 1973 and 1974 by Kazuo Kamimura, it is a manga that reminds us of the Edo period as well as the art of Hokusai
    • The film Harakiri , was released in 1962 by Masaki Kobayashi, this one highlights the galley of samurai in an era that no longer needs them, that of Edo. As a reminder, Harakiri is a form of samurai self-suicide
    • Kwaidan , is another movie released in 1964 by Kobayashi. This one talks about fantastic Japanese, one of the themes of ukiyo-e, based on the tales of Hearn Lafcadio
    • The Tales of the Wave Moon After the Rain , is a 1953 film released by Kenji Mizoguchi that tells us about the fantastic Japanese, in a poetic way
    • Memory of a Geisha , is a 2005 film by Rob Marshall that reminds us of the fromings of an Edo era geisha

    Manga and anime are considered descendants of ukiyo-e, knowing that the origin of Japanese imagery stories can be traced back to emaki. These are the scrolls illustrated since the 12th century and which have even been used by Moronobu, a great master of ukiyo-e. It is much later, in the golden age of ukiyo-e, that we will know these visual codes seen in manga , like erotic art.

    Ukiyo-e, the most emblematic art of Japanese culture

    As a reminder, we saw that ukiyo-e is a Japanese artistic concept that appeared during the Edimgo era. Called “ images of the floating world ”, it highlighted the urban lifestyle of civilians during the Tokugawa shogunate. However, the first achievements of the print come from the Chinese masters who wanted to establish Buddhism.

    The ukiyo-e is a print on wood whose printing is done in black ink at the very beginning, by Monorobu. It was much later, under the influence of Western painting, that the colors of Japanese print would be diversified. There are several themes of Japanese print , the best known of which are the courtesans or the landscape.

    Utamaro, Hiroshige or Hokusai, are considered the great masters of ukiyo-e and their works remain timeless. The realization of a print requires a few craftsmen including the draftsman, the printer, the engraver and the publisher. Influenced by Western art and photography, ukiyo-e is gradually disappearing in Japan.

    However, Japanese print has greatly influenced Western culture, like Van Gogh who reproduces a work by Hiroshige. Just like Claude Monet who is inspired by a work by Hokusai. Popular culture, like the cinematic world or manga , keep some memories of this Japanese art.

    Did you know that the great wave of Kanagawa is a Japanese artistic masterpiece that remains timeless? Thank you for following us and see you soon!

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