The Origin of Ukiyo-e Art

Focus on Forms

The earliest painters who gave rise to the tradition of Ukiyo-e were inspired by the Yamato-e style of Japanese paintings. The Yamato-e style of painting presented stylized human figures. Also, it focused less on facial expressions and stressed on overall form instead. This was then developed with bright colors. Such focus on the form of the figure with bright colors are traits visible in Ukiyo-e art as well.

The above work dating 1622-44 is the earliest surviving example of the Ukiyo-e tradition. It is a traditional byobu folding screen that was used to separate the interior. The unknown painter has stressed highly on the figure. The work has a total of 15 figures. They all are performing one work or the other. The artist has stressed more on the activities of the subjects while emphasizing less on their faces. In fact, some characters have even kept their faces concealed from the viewer. But their actions are clear. Furthermore, they are all wearing decorative gowns whose bright colors appeal to the observer.

the nomenclature of ukiyo-e

The term Ukiyo-e combines uki indicating sadness and yo denoting life. The original meaning of the word reflected a Buddhist concept regarding life. The concept interpreted life as an illusion. This illusion is a transitory phase beginning with birth. The person then experiences suffering followed by death. After this, there is a rebirth.

But the artistic tradition of Ukiyo-e follows a different interpretation of life. It translates to ‘pictures of the floating world’. This ‘floating world’ refers to the world of the geisha, courtesans, and kabuki theater. During the peaceful reign of the Shoguns in the 17th century, Edo (former name of Tokyo) experienced rapid economic growth. The people could afford luxuries which led to the growth of the pleasure sectors. The early Ukiyo-e artists focused on those worlds in which the rich generally spent their leisure time.

the early years

The tradition of Ukiyo-e developed as different artists introduced their own ideas, concepts, and styles into this stream of art. Japanese researchers have often claimed that Iwasa Matabei (1578-1650) started this genre. But researchers and scholars have not yet arrived at a conclusion whether his works themselves displayed the Ukiyo-e style. In fact, Matabei was also known as Ukiyo Matabei. During his era, Ukiyo-e was an art form that was considered fashionable but vulgar because it presented brothels as subject matters.

However, the first artist who left a prominent impact in this genre was Hishikawa Moronobu (1618-1694). Moronobu focused highly on the courtesans. An example of this is Beauty Looking Back. The subject looks sideways as she walks. Here again, the overall form of the figure and bright color of her kimono gown attain high emphasis. Kaigetsudo Ando emulated this style of subject and approach. He kept painting such courtesan figures and made them famous till the early years of the 18th century.

Beauty Looking Back By Hishikawa Moronobu

Another artist, Nishikawa Sukenobu, also followed this style until there was a ban on erotic content from the government in 1722. This ban was specifically directed towards the likes of Sukenobu, whose subjects were often confidential activities happening in women quarters. These included the bedroom antics and adultery committed by important people. Consequently, the authorities warned him since the works proved to be vulnerable for many.

Unlike Ando, Sukenobu often portrayed courtesans performing concrete actions that reflected their actual lifestyles in their inner quarters. An example of such is Three Beauties. It shows that the artist’s works were more technically refined while his colors were restrained.

Altogether, such works introduce a completely new style within the domain of representation of women.

Three Beauties by Nishikawa Sukenobu,18th century Japan, Edo period (1615–1868)

mid-18th century

During the 1740s, woodblock printing became common. With it emerged new Ukiyo-e painters who introduced new sub-genres into this tradition. The most prominent of such artists was Okumura Masanobu (1686-1764). Masanobu blended the western style of observing the scene through a linear perspective with the Japanese tradition of Ukiyo-e and produced the concept of Uki-e. Like traditional Ukiyo-e, Masanobu emphasized on overall forms. But he approached the scene from the European concept of perspective, observing the setting as a person would from a little distance away.

Masanobu was the first to approach Ukiyo-e through the new concept of Uki-e and his main subject was the kabuki theater. Utagawa Toyoharu took inspirations from Italian styles and further developed this sub-genre. While he too focused considerably on the kabuki theater scene, he also further expanded to produce different kinds of external scenes of 18th century Japan.

Taking the Evening Cool by Ryōgoku Bridge, 1745 By Okumura Masanobu

Post-1750s: A New Direction

By the 1760s, full-color prints had emerged. Suzuki Harunobu (1724-1770) was one of the first artists belonging to the tradition of Ukiyo-e to have implemented full-color printing. Harunobu applied a white opaque layer over which a layer of calcium-carbonate was employed, followed by diverse paint layers of azurite, indigo, and others. His subjects ranged from traditional erotic scenes to romantic settings to the illustration of classical poems.

Apart from the subject matter and medium, Harunobu also introduced newness with regards to composition. Unlike the works of the early Ukiyo-e masters, his works concentrated on the overall composition. For instance, in Couple under Umbrella in Snow, the observer not only sees the two lovers but sees them in snow. That is, the surrounding atmosphere plays as much role as the couple to form an overall impact for the viewer.

A new direction in the tradition of Ukiyo-e. Couple under Umbrella in Snow By Suzuki Harunobu

Harunobu was the most famous Ukiyo-e artist of his era, rendered by his innovations and refreshing perceptions. This stream of art took a new turn post the 1760s. However, such new turns were pillared by the innovations that shaped the early and middle years of the tradition of Ukiyo-e.

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