The Ukiyo-e

What does 'Ukiyo' mean?

Ukiyo was a term used to describe the popular entertainment culture of Edo and other Japanese cities of the Edo Period. Meaning 'floating world', Ukiyo centred around the rising middle classes and their insatiable appetite for entertainment in the form of theatre, wrestling, teahouses, kabuki and erotica.

What is 'Ukiyo-e'?

Ukiyo-e means 'floating world picture' or 'pictures of the floating world'. It is a term used to describe the Japanese wood-block prints produced between the 17th and 20th centuries that focused on the depiction of famous actors, courtesans and prostitutes, landscapes and erotica.

Ukiyo-e began life during the 17th century, when ehon (picture books) were being produced for the rising middle classes. Wood-blocks were used to illustrate these books, but really came into their own during the boom of the Ukiyo. Ukiyo-e images were now being used on posters to advertise the many theatre and kabuki productions that were popular in Edo and other Japanese cities.

Early Ukiyo-e prints used a single colour technique, perfected by the artist Hishikawa Moronobu. Moronobu was the prominent Ukiyo-e artist of the middle of the 17th century until his death in 1694. Most prints were produced in black and white, with some colour added with a brush, or with an additional colour ink block.

Ukiyo-e woodblock print depicting two lovers an example of Shunga erotic art

Ukiyo-e woodblock print depicting two lovers

an example of Shunga (erotic art)

Kabuki actor Nakamura Fukusuke as Hayano Kampei by Utagawa Kunisada

Kabuki actor Nakamura Fukusuke as Hayano Kampei

Utagawa Kunisada

Moatside Prostitute by Kitagawa Utamaru

Moatside Prostitute c1794

Kitagawa Utamaru

By the middle of the 18th century a new technique had been developed by the printmaker Suzuki Harunobu. Nishiki-e allowed for the use of multiple colours. Seperate wood-blocks were produced for each colour and used in a stepwise fashion to create the print. This technique is sometimes known as Edo-e, after the capital city Edo.

By Hokusai' time Ukiyo-e had become a mass produced art form that was accessible to many people, in particular the middle classes who could not afford original works of art. It was during this period that artists such as Hokusai, Utamaro and Hiroshige were prominent.

Ukiyo-e continued to change through Japanese exposure to Western art. During the Edo Period, and the national isolation imposed on Japan by the Tokugawa Shoganate, Dutch traders (the only Europeans allowed contact with Japan) gave Ukiyo-e artists the chance to study Western art. They started to incorporate techniques such as perspective and shading into their work. Artists began to depict new subject matter such as nature.

During the Tenpo Reforms of the mid 18th century, pictures of many of Ukiyo-e' traditional subjects including geisha, courtesans and actors, were banned. Ukiyo-e continued to reflect Japan's changing culture through the remainder of the 18th and 19th centuries.

Tama River - Fugaku Sanju-rokkei by Katsushika Hokusai

Tama River - Fugaku Sanju-rokkei

Katsushika Hokusai