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The History of Ukiyo-e (浮世絵) / Japanese Art

(The Origin of Ukiyo-e)

Ukiyo-e can be categorized into two periods: the Edo period, which comprises ukiyo-e from its origins in the 1620s until about 1867, when the Meiji period began, lasting until 1912.
The Edo period was largely a period of calm that provided an ideal environment for the development of the art in a commercial form; while the Meiji period is characterized by new influences as Japan opened up to the West.
The roots of ukiyo-e can be traced to the urbanization that took place in the late 16th century that led to the development of a class of merchants and artisans who began writing stories or novels, and painting pictures, compiled in ehon (絵本, picture books, books with stories and picture illustrations), such as the 1608 edition of Tales of Ise by Hon'ami Koetsu.
(The Origin of Ukiyo-e)

Ukiyo-e were often used for illustrations in these books, but came into their own as single-sheet prints (e.g., postcards or kakemono-e) or were posters for the kabuki theater.
Many stories were based on urban life and culture; guidebooks were also popular; and all in all had a commercial nature and were widely available. Hishikawa Moronobu, who already used polychrome painting, became very influential after the 1670s.

(Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji by Hokusai)

In the mid-18th century, techniques allowed for production of full-color prints, called nishiki-e, and the ukiyo-e that are reproduced today on postcards and calendars date from this period on. Utamaro, Hokusai, Hiroshige, and Sharaku were the prominent artists of this period.
After studying European artwork, receding perspective entered the pictures and other ideas were picked up. Katsushika Hokusai's pictures depicted mostly landscapes and nature. His Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji (富嶽三十六景, Fugaku sanjūrokkei) were published starting around 1831. Ando Hiroshige and Kunisada also published many pictures drawn on motifs from nature.

In 1842, pictures of courtesans, geisha and actors (e.g., onnagata) were banned as part of the Tenpō reforms. Pictures with these motifs experienced some revival when they were permitted again.

During the Kaei era, (1848–1854), many foreign merchant ships came to Japan. The ukiyo-e of that time reflect the cultural changes.

Following the Meiji Restoration in 1868, Japan became open to imports from the West, including photography, which largely replaced ukiyo-e during the bunmei-kaika (文明開化, Japan's Westernization movement during the early Meiji period). Ukiyo-e fell so far out of fashion that the prints, now practically worthless, were used as packing material for trade goods. When Europeans saw them, however, they became a major source of inspiration for Impressionist, Cubist, and Post-Impressionist artists, such as Vincent van Gogh, James Abbott McNeill Whistler, Claude Monet, Edgar Degas, Mary Cassatt, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and others. This influence has been called Japonisme.
(Ukiyo-e in Meiji Era)

Though ukiyo-e saw its end in the Meiji period, and the term is not applied to works after that time, in the 20th century, during the Taishō and Shōwa periods, new print forms arose in Japan. The shin hanga ("New Prints") movement, a print equivalent to the Nihonga movement in painting, drew upon ukiyo-e traditions, creating images of traditional Japanese scenes, in traditional modes and forms. Inspired by European Impressionism, the artists incorporated Western elements such as the effects of light and the expression of individual moods but focused on strictly traditional themes. The major publisher was Watanabe Shozaburo, who is credited with creating the movement. Important artists included Itō Shinsui and Kawase Hasui, who were named Living National Treasures by the Japanese government. Shin hanga was particularly popular among Western collectors, who enjoyed images of traditional Japan and mourned its loss, as Japan pressed forward with modernization and Westernization campaigns.
(Ukiyo-e / Meiji Emperor)

The less-well-known sōsaku hanga movement, literally creative prints, followed a Western concept of what art should be: the product of the creativity of the artists, creativity over artisanship. Traditionally, the processes of making ukiyo-e — the design, carving, printing, and publishing — were separated and done by different and highly specialized people (as was also traditionally the case with Western woodcuts).
Sōsaku hanga advocated that the artist should be involved in all stages of production.
The movement was formally established with the formation of the Japanese Creative Print Society in 1918, however, it was commercially less successful, as Western collectors preferred the more traditionally Japanese look of shin hanga.

By T.S. on June 10, 2010
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Author:T. SATOH