Ukiyo-e Printing

The Edo period in Japan (1615-1868) is marked by the flourishing of Japanese art and theater. Ukiyo-e, meaning floating world, is a form of wood-block art that depicts beauty in a fantasy-like method. Ukiyo-e is created first by an artist as a drawing, and then a copyist traces the original lines on a stronger sheet of paper.
Next an engraver pastes the copied drawing face down on a cherry-wood block and cuts away parts of the block allowing for the lines in the painting to be clearly seen. Ink made from rice paste and pigment was used to color parts of the block in later prints. This was a arduous and multi-stepped process that made ukiyo-e prints desirable and valuable piece. Since many ukiyo-e prints were often of Kabuki actors, a popular form of theater at the time, they were in high demand.

Commonly thought of as the pioneer for ukiyo-e style, Hishikawa Moronobu was born at the beginning of the Edo Period. One of his most popular ukiyo-e prints, ‘Lovers’, perfectly embodies the spirit of ukiyo-e prints. In this print, two lovers are embracing in an area filled with flowers. While the young samurai’s lover embraces the idea of beauty, the scenery does as well. While ukyo-e prints were black and white at this point, one can easily imagine the vibrant colors this scene might hold. Moronobu begins a tradition of capturing beauty through ukiyo-e prints.

When one thinks of Japanese art, often they picture the works of Katsushika Hokusai. Born in 1760, he became an apprentice to an ukiyo-e engraver at a young age. His prominence only continued to rise. The most iconic of his works is “The Great Wave off Kanagawa.” This piece is part of his series “Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji.” Hokusai loved depicting Mount Fuji in his work. In his most well known print, we see a big wave capturing boats in its fury. This scene of impending destruction is contrasted with the peaceful Mount Fuji in the distance. Through this work, he not only shows the beauty of this wave, but through its destruction it also highlights the peaceful serenity of Mount Fuji.

Ukiyo-e prints are one of the most recognized forms of Japanese art today. These prints not only successfully capture human beauty, but also the beauty of nature. Unsurprisingly, these works went on to inspire many other forms of art such as Japanese manga. Through these works we can see a glimpse of life in Japan’s Edo Period and how beauty was depicted during this time.