History of ukiyo-e prints - The Great Wave

Pictures of the Floating World: History of Ukiyo-e Prints

The Legacy of Traditional Japanese Woodblock Prints

History of ukiyo-e prints - Great Wave off KanagawaUkiyo-e can be translated literally as ‘pictures of the floating world’. The term describes the genre of Japanese woodblock prints, which includes the well-known works of Hiroshige and Hokusai. In fact, the history of ukiyo-e prints covers a great deal more ground than landscape art alone, and the genre’s diversity throughout the ages is quite remarkable.

This post summarises the history and characteristics of Japanese woodblock prints to give a flavour of their role in traditional and contemporary art – both in Japan and the western world.

History of Ukiyo-e Prints

This history of ukiyo-e prints begins in the early 17th Century, when Edo (modern Tokyo) became the seat of the government. This resulted in rapid economic growth, which came to be of particular benefit to the merchant class. The transformation saw those at the bottom of the social order indulging in new experiences and entertainments, and it was this hedonistic lifestyle that the term ‘floating world’ came to describe.Hosai Kunikane - Samurai Sasaki

The now-prosperous merchant class could suddenly afford luxuries and indulged in extravagant art prints that reflected their new lifestyles. Ukiyo-e reached its peak towards the end of the 18th Century with portraits of female beauties, kabuki actors and sumo wrestlers from the likes of Kiyonaga, Utamaro, and Sharaku, together with the atmospheric landscapes of Hiroshige and Hokusai.

Following the death of these two masters, and during the social and technological modernisation that followed the Meiji Restoration of 1868, production fell into decline. However, the legacy of ukiyo-e lived on and the art form had a strong influence on the work of many western impressionists and post-impressionists, from Monet to Van Gough.

Common Characteristics of Ukiyo-e

Japanese woodblock prints often have a seasonal slant to them. Common themes include:

  • actors and sumo wrestlers
  • female beauties and erotica
  • samurai warriors
  • scenes of everyday life
  • folk and historical tales
  • journeys and landscapes
  • flora and fauna

Early Japanese woodblock prints (C 1670- 1740), including most of Moronobu’s early work, were mainly monochromatic, with the odd bit of colour added by hand where specially commissioned. As the ukiyo-e movement progressed, artists like Masanobu started printing in different colours using multiple woodblocks, and eventually nishiki-e (multicoloured) printing became the norm.

Revival of Japanese Woodblock Prints

Japanese printmaking underwent a revival during the 20th century with the shin-hanga (new prints) and sosaku-hanga (creative prints) movements. The former continues to focus on traditional themes, but incorporates western elements of impressionism, such as the effects of light and the expression of mood. Conversely, the latter leans towards the new and the original, with works influenced by individualism and characterised by self-expression.

Towards the latter end of the 20th century, western techniques such as screen printing, etching and mixed media also came to be imposed on the ukiyo-e genre, which continues to evolve to this day. (The Library of Congress displays some fantastic examples of modern and contemporary Japanese prints).

Hokusai address book

If you would like to know more about the history of ukiyo-e prints, museum websites are a great source of information. You can also browse The Japanese Shop’s selection of woodblock prints, which are all crafted using the same traditional printing techniques used in Hiroshige and Hokusai’s original works. In addition, we have stationery, posters and hanging scrolls featuring traditional Japanese prints, enabling you to bring a touch of the floating world to your home or office.

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