UPDATE # 25
Mid January 2007
Ukiyo-e: literally "pictures of the floating world," is the Japanese term loosely applied to the art of the woodblock print, and also paintings of daily life and famous courtesans from the mid Edo period to the late Meiji period (approx. 1700-1900).
Ukiyo-e woodblock prints began to appear in the early 1660s and they were always largely the art of the urban lower classes existing in Edo(now Tokyo) from that time to the late 19th century.
Edo was a small fishing village from the 15th century. It was founded as a city at the beginning of the 17th century by Ieyasu(1542-1616), the first of the Tokugawa line of Shoguns who were to lead Japan until the restoration of the Meiji Emperor in 1868. When the Shogun Ieyasu moved to the new capital with thousands of retainers, he was followed by artisans, tradesmen and servants to supply the needs of the affluent ruling class. Builders and carpenters were imported by the hundreds to construct homes for the 250 hostage feudal lords ordered by the Shogun to keep their families in Edo. Almost overnight the village became a city. Bridges spanned the many creeks and rivers, and over them moved an unending stream of humanity.
For instance, the lower-class population of Edo(the Samurai class was excluded from the census) had grown from almost zero in 1600 to 500 ,000 by 1723 and 1,000,000 by 1800. The city offered to the peasant unheard of diversions, such as the Yoshiwara pleasure quarter with many courtesans, tea houses and Kabuki theatres.
The Kabuki theatre originated in the early 17th century and was an unparalleled diversion from the hardships of life. The actors became folk heroes and the finer details of their repertoire were common knowledge, providing a rich mine of urban folklore. Some of the Edo fashion amoung women were also strongly influenced by popular Onnagata(specialized in female roles) Kabuki actors. Kabuki, naturally, was frowned upon by the government. Reprisals for infringements of the censorship rules were swift and harsh. Samurai(the first and warrior class) were forbidden to attend Kabuki performances and could only do so in disguises.(After the Meiji period even the Emperor and Empress attended private performances of Kabuki theatre). Naturally, a market for souvenirs had been created, and gradually the art of woodblock printing began to develop in a special way in order to satisfy this market. As a result, many great Ukiyo-e print artists of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, devoted a considerable amount of their effort to the design of prints for the Kabuki theatre.
Another important source of motivation for prints was one of the chief centres of pleasure in Edo, the Yoshiwara quarter. Within was a world of tea houses, brothels, and the hierarchy of waitresses, Geishas, musicians and courtesans which went with them. Although the common people could not afford the delights of the more famous and exotic houses, many of the inhabitants were famous beyond the confines of their nocturnal environment. The great courtesans paraded occasionally with displays of great extravagance and luxury. The print artists and publishers were quick to see profit in another lucrative market. Waitresses in tea houses were also renowned for their beauty and attained a fame that seems strange to us today. Publishers, being business men and devoted to commercial expansion, were naturally always looking for untapped markets.
The repertoire of print subject matter grew beyond the theatre, restaurants and tea houses. Surimono prints were also published upon the occasions of poem groups publications, artist' and artisan's namechange announcements, New Year's Greetings, etc. (Surimono prints were usually commissioned and were not for sale to the public.) Popular legend and myth were explored by the artists. Popular Sumo wrestlers were often depicted. To a lesser extent flora and fauna were celebrated, and slowly the depiction of landscape grew into the 19th century masterpieces. Occasionally the government attempted to exercise direct control over subject matter, as with the introduction of compulsory governmental censorship of prints in the late 18th century after artists had been obliquely criticising the aristocracy in their pictures. Later in the mid-19th century, a government sumptuary decree(c.1842) forbad the illustration of excessively elaborate luxury in the Kabuki theatre and courtesan costume with the object of strengthening the military spirit of the nation. This decree gave a strong impetus to landscape, heroic and legendary subjects, sometimes with readily recognizable actors masquerading as legendary figures of the past.
As mentioned above, Ukiyo-e is the Japanese term loosely applied to the art of the woodblock print and also paintings from the mid Edo period to late Meiji period depicting mostly genre scenes. Ukiyo, the floating world, is originally a Buddhist term, where floating has connotations of transience and lack of substance. It was used to refer to the illusory and undesirable state of affairs in this world of ceaseless reincarnation which could be transcended through faith in the saving power of the Buddha. In 17th century Edo it came to be applied with more positive feelings to the changing fashions and amusements of life devoted to pleasure. Ukiyo-e, pictures of the floating world, is the name given to the distinct style of painting, and of the book illustrations and prints derived from the paintings, which grew up to record and give visual identity to this new urban culture.
The medium of monochrome block printing had been in use for several centuries before the advent of colour printing in the mid- 18th century, but its use was restricted to the production of religious images and texts and there was little artistic development. It was not until the late 17th century that it broadened its scope to secular themes called Ukiyo-e. During the first phase of its development, the technique did not extend its capability to any more than a single impression printing. In this stage, the prints were either monochrome or coloured by brush. In the mid-18th century, the printing technique, in which all the process is done from woodblocks, was completed. These colourful prints were often called Nishiki-e. Once this early and sudden mastery was attained there were no more major developments throughout the brief life span of Ukiyo-e prints. Naturally colours were added and some extra technique became common, such as embossing of the paper using dry blocks and using metal dusts of various kinds. Lacquer mixed with black colour and powdered mica background were successful but deluxe innovations.
The process of traditional woodblock printing begins with the artist drawing a draft on a semi-transparent paper with black ink. This draft is directly pasted on a cherry or pear wood plate reverse-side up, and then the lines of the drawing to be raised are carved by scraping off the surface of the block. This block will provide the general outlines for the print. Printer usually print out a dozen of these outline prints and deliver them to the artist, and from these prints, the artist decides the colour for each part of the print using a separate block for each colour. The colour plates are then made accordingly.
On these blocks, parts which require the same colour are raised in the same manner as the outline plate, or "Key Block". Each block has two guide marks called Kento which secure synchronizations of each impression. The impressions are achieved by scrubbing the back of a slightly moistened paper placed over a painted block with a round-shaped pad called Baren made from the outer sheaf of the bamboo. The printer would throw his weight onto this pad using a zig-zag or circular motion.
The number of impressions is broadly varied according to the style and success of the print. An edition of 200-300 was usual, as after this number the block would expand through absorbing water. Drying out then became necessary before more impressions could be taken. It is reckoned that a fine edition of 200-300 would take about up to 2 weeks to complete, but lowered standards such as less colours and less care could reduce this time drastically.
After the first printing, blocks would start to show signs of wear, particularly the finer lines such as those representing hair and features. Pigments used were mainly of vegetable and mineral origin colours. The harsher aniline dyes of the mid-19th century from Europe might come initially as a shock, but one soon learns to accept the particular merits. The paper chiefly used was a variety called Hosho. This was made from the fibres of the bark of the mulberry tree. Its soft texture allowed good penetration by the pigment and yet was strong enough to resist the rubbing of the Baren.
Print production began in Osaka around the 1790's. As demand increased so more prints were produced. This process carried on with minor recessions until the late 19th century. The subject matter is almost exclusively to do with the Kabuki theatre. The prints are dramatic portraits of actors, plus they excel in the woodblock technique, the colour, the sharp impression and sometimes the embellishment devices of silver, gold and lacquer.