Ukiyo-e – The Peak Years

Continued from The key artists of Ukiyo-e art – the middle years.

During the late 18th century, drastic reforms were executed by the new Kansei government (1789 – 1801) to resist famine and encourage economic growth. The government also supported the artistic representation of beauty and harmony in the society. Torii Kiyonaga reflected this style perfectly through the postures of his human subjects.

Torii Kiyonaga’s blissful stories

The first thing the viewer will notice in the work of Kiyonaga is the presence of strong expressive characters. Each person connects with the other to evoke robust communication. Consequently, the observer can feel the presence of a strong narrative. Kiyonaga emphasizes on both body posture and facial expression to produce this aspect. Each character uses these two elements of human expression to communicate with the next person. Based on this, Kiyonaga generates a concrete story, Consequently, his works are nothing without their characters and there is always more than one in each scene. His Bathhouse Women articulates this aspect.

Bathhouse Women by Torii Kiyonaga

The viewer can easily notice the bodily and facial expressions of each character in this work. As they communicate with each other, the subjects express a feeling of bliss. This reflects the theme of artistic representation of beauty and harmony that was prevalent during that era. Moreover, Kiyonaga brings extreme details in his representation of the scene. The background especially gives a clear indication of this. Like the master of the previous decades, Suzuki Harunobu, Kiyonaga’s color palette is a blend of restraining and vividness. However, Harunobu’s scenes were dreamy while Kiyonaga’s scenes represent the society in realistic terms.

Kitagawa Utamaro’s secret worlds

Contrastively, Utamaro’s works were much more personal. The works often presented subjects from close, focusing on their activities which were highly personal in nature, like brushing of hair. He often presented the sensual side of humanity, emphasizing on explicit acts. Unlike Kiyonaga, the scenes of Utamaro mostly had a maximum of two characters. Accordingly, his central themes were sensuality, sexual acts in secret, and gossips. These themes evoke the underlying secrecy characterized by the personal dimension of human society. This scene from Poem of the Pillow articulates Utamaro’s vision.

A scene from ‘Poem of the Pillow’ by Kitagawa Utamaro (1788)

The above work represents the gossipy nature of Utamaro’s works. It also showcases the emphasis he gave on interpreting the uniqueness of each face. Resonating with the intimacy of his characters, his color palette as well is highly reserved and uneager to express more. Therefore, while Kiyonaga presented realism within the public space, Utamaro evoked another version of reality that is equally true but folded.

The enigmatic Sharaku

Perhaps the most enigmatic personality to have introduced himself to the artistic arena, Toshusai Sharaku emerged out of nowhere in the early months of 1794. He worked for 10 months to produce 146 known prints. And then, he simply disappeared never to be seen again. His classic works mostly present kabuki actors. Sharaku interpreted these subjects from up close, focusing on their exaggerated expressions. The nature of the expression, the clothes, the hands, and the tilt of the head blended to evoke the unique personality of each subject. Consequently, each character leaves a sharp impression within the mind of the observer.

Ōtani Oniji III in the Role of the Servant Edobei by Shakaru (1794)

The above work perfectly demonstrates these traits. Additionally, it showcases how Sharaku used contrastive colors to highlight the face of the subject. This method is in line with the traditional norm of Western arts for the creation of portraits. All of these traits together make him an enigmatic revolutionary figure in the artistic domain of Japan.

Other Notable Artists

While Sharaku brought revolution through his representation of the Kabuki artists, Utagawa Toyokuni depicted them in a way that was more traditional. As such, initially, he received more positive response than Shakaru, though the latter’s impression has been much more lasting. Eishi brought a gentleness to his representation of the courtesans. His narrative, postures, and color palette were consistently restrained.

Cherry Blossom Viewing at Gotenyama Hill by Eishi (1791 – 1797)
Onoe Eisaburo I by Toyokuni (1800)

The presence of such masters ensured that the quality of works during this period was consistently high. As such, this period came to be known as the peak years of Ukiyo-e art. But the most enduring names of this era are Utamaro and Shakaru, whose subjects and narratives brought uniqueness that specifically represented the individual visions of these artists.

Please follow and like us:

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

%d bloggers like this: