Japanese woodblock prints, known as 'ukiyo-e' were made over a whopping timespan of 300 years. During that time, ukiyo-e artists changed and developed the art form, each bringing new styles, techniques and compositions into play. Although famous in their time, many of the artists besides Hokusai, Utamaro and Hiroshige are relatively unknown. This article hops between 10 masters of ukiyo-e who were influential in changing art history, both in Japan and across the sea.
One of the first and most popular ukiyo-e artists was Utamaro. His best-known works are his portraits of beautiful women: geisha and courtesans. However, more than half of Utamaro’s artistic output was erotica, or ‘Shunga’. Utamaro used strong lines and flat areas of colour but experimented with the sensual notion of what’s revealed and what’s hidden. This can be seen in the playful poses of his subjects, the use of transparency and often the incorporation of mirrors.
One of Utamaro’s images, “Three Beauties of the Present Day” was a raging success, which led to many artists copying this triple-portrait composition in later prints.
"Three Beauties of the Present Day" - Utamaro, 1793
Another of Utamaro’s designs, titled “Poem of the Pillow”, shows Utamaro’s playfully subtle style, in an erotic print that leaves much to the imagination.
"Poem of the Pillow" - Utamaro, 1788
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Hokusai was one of the most prolific ukiyo-e artists. Throughout his career he designed prints in every genre from landscapes to erotica. He changed his name many times throughout his career - more than any other artist - and also never liked to stay in one place, reportedly moving home around 93 times.
His design, “The Great Wave” is the most well-known Japanse print of all time and comes from the series “36 Views of Mount Fuji”. Although a far simpler design than the Great Wave, the print known as “Red Fuji” was just as popular, capturing the stunning phenomenon when the clear sky turns the mountain red.
"Mount Fuji in Clear Weather (Red Fuji)" - Hokusai, 1830-1832
Another favoured genre explored by Hokusai was Shunga. His design “The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife” is the most famous piece of Japanese erotica to date, and inspired many artists in Japan, and in the West, such as Rodin and Picasso.
"The Dream of the Fisherman's Wife" - Hokusai, 1814
The most mysterious ukiyo-e artist of all was Sharaku, who appeared out of nowhere and began producing prints. He created nearly 150 designs before disappearing after only 10 months. There are many theories that surround his identity and disappearance, some even believed him to be Hokusai. His prints were most commonly ‘yakusha-e’: portraits of actors from kabuki theatre. At the time, kabuki actors were seen as celebrities - similar to modern-day movie stars. Sharaku’s designs were controversial because he ignored the typical practice of flattering the actors. Instead, Sharaku depicted their unattractive truths, often exaggerated.
"Ōtanji Odanji III as Yakko Edobei" - Sharaku, 1794
Sharaku’s most-known print is of an actor playing the menacing character “Yakko Edobei”. The actor’s nose is elongated and hooked, and his anatomy is incorrect.
"Iwai Hanshiro IV as the Wet Nurse Shigenoi" - Sharaku, 1794
In the portrait of “Shigenoi”, Sharaku’s satirical style is even more prominent. As kabuki was a male-only theatre arts, men would often specialise in female roles. It was commonplace for artists to feminise the actors in these roles, to compliment their skills. However Sharaku ignored this, instead showing their reality - which would have been very offensive at the time.
Kunisada’s first known print dates back to when he was just 21 and his career took off overnight. He was the leading light of the ukiyo-e movement, and his unique talent for storytelling made him the most successful ukiyo-e master of the time. Over his career, he produced upwards of 25,000 designs, around two thirds of which were kabuki actor prints. Kunisada also designed many prints of beauties, ‘bijin-ga’ as well as shunga.
"Kawarazaki Gonjuro I as Gorō Tokimune" - Kunisada, 1860
His designs are recognisable for their intricate patterning and exquisite colours, owing to the new inks that were available after trade opened with the West. This can be seen in kabuki prints such as that of “Gorō Tokimune”, with its strong use of red, a synthetic vermillion ink which was imported from Germany. These were known as ‘ama-e’, meaning “red pictures”.
"Woman Masturbating" - Kunisada
His erotic prints, such as “woman masturbating” would have been produced used the pseudonym ‘Matahei’, in order to hide his identity during a time of strict censorship.
Eisen was nicknamed “the decadent”, after producing ornately detailed portraits of beautiful women, erotica and occasionally landscapes. Born the son of an established calligrapher, Eisen was taught the way of the brush from an early age and his father had high aspirations for him. After being an ukiyo-e apprentice, Eisen specialised in ‘okubi-e’, translating as “large head pictures”, which are close-up portraits and busts. Unlike many other artists who depicted women as slender and subtly revealing, Eisen’s portrayals of women were curvier and usually more exposed. Although many consider this style as being sexualised, Edo period Japan had a far more relaxed and playful approach to erotica.
"Woman of Unyielding Appearance" - Eisen, 1822-1823
In his portrait, “Woman of unyielding appearance” he shows just that - a courtesan with an open kimono, revealing her curved breast.
"Shunga Print" - Eisen
This is shown again in his “shunga print”, which revels in its depiction of female sexual pleasure.
Hiroshige was another of the infamous masters of ukiyo-e. After both of his parents died when he was just 12, Hiroshige soon entered the notorious ‘Utagawa school’, named after his ukiyo-e master Utagawa Toyokuni. After dabbling with genres in his early days of designing, Hiroshige began producing the landscape prints that eventually made him wildly successful. His most famous series was of the “53 Stations of the Tokaido Road”, which was a route that connected Edo (now Tokyo) with Kyoto.
"Sudden Shower over Shin-Ōhashi Bridge and Atake" - Hiroshige, 1857
Hiroshige’s famous print, “Sudden Shower Over Shin-Ōhashi Bridge and Atake” was part of a series dedicated to showing the well-known places of Edo through different seasons.
"The Plum Blossom Garden at Kameido" - Hiroshige, 1857
It was this print, as well as “The Plum Blossom Garden at Kameido” that were part of Vincent Van Gogh’s collection, of which he would then go on to replicate in his own paintings.
Kuniyoshi was the master of many genres, switching between them throughout his artistic career. He did, however, have a special interest in designing prints of warriors, myths and the supernatural. His father was a silk dyer, and introduced the young Kuniyoshi to pattern designing, which is perhaps why the textiles in his images are always so ornate. He had a passion for drawing and joined the famed ukiyo-e Utagawa school, thus taking the Utagawa name from his master, in the traditional custom of master-apprentice. Throughout his life, Kuniyoshi had financial difficulties, which at one point forced him to give up designing in order to make money repairing and selling tatami floor mats.
"In the Ruined Palace at Sôma, Masakado's Daughter Takiyasha uses Sorcery to Gather Allies" - Kuniyoshi, 1844
His speciality for other-wordly legends can be seen in his images of ‘Yokai’, which are supernatural and paranormal phenomena. The skeleton in this image, “In the ruined palace at Soma” displays the artist’s interest in sorcery.
"Oboshi Yuranosuke Yoshio" - Kuniyoshi, 1847-1848
Kuniyoshi also believed in living the ‘Bushido’ way, which was the samurai ideal of extreme courage and loyalty. He produced an important series, “The Biographies of the Loyal Retainers” from which the print “Oboshi Yuranosuke Yoshio” is part of.
Yoshitoshi’s life was somewhat of a rollercoaster. He was Kuniyoshi’s apprentice at the Utagawa school and thus took the ‘Yoshi’ part of his name. He lived in a time of extreme turmoil and upheaval in a changing Japan at the end of the Edo period. Yoshitoshi’s life was a constant struggle for survival through illness and poverty. Due to the tumultuous times, Yoshitoshi was exposed to much violence and so had a special interest in portraying blood, gore, sex and crime. His most famous series of prints was “100 Aspects of the Moon” which, similarly to his master Kuniyoshi, showed his interest in the paranormal.
"Mount Yoshino Midnight Moon" - Yoshitoshi, 1886
One of his most famed prints, “Mount Yoshino Midnight Moon” Yoshitoshi depicts a ghostly spirit, and Iga-no Tsubone standing tall and fearless against him. The courage displayed by this lady of the court represented a distinct patriotism.
"Ashikaga Yoshimitsu Admiring the Golden Pavillion" - Yoshitoshi, 1879
Patriotism was a theme that ran through many of Yoshitoshi’s prints, such as his depiction of the infamous hero Yoshimitsu standing in front of Kyoto’s famous Golden Pavilion.
Hasui was known as a “poet of place”, who portrayed charming scenes of his travels across Japan. He was part of the movement known as ‘shin-hanga’, meaning “new prints” and produced approximately 600 ukiyo-e within his lifetime. His style is instantly recognisable and his ardent pursuit of beauty took him far across the landscape of Japan. Although his prints are compared to Hiroshige and Hokusai, Hasui also portrayed rural landscapes, fascinated by their tranquil beauty and realism. His search for inspiration saw him walking across many cities, islands and prefectures.
"Komagata River Bank" - Hasui, 1919
This rural scene, “komagata river bank”, shows the gentility of nature, as a farmer naps amongst the bamboo. Although it seems unlikely, but this image depicts Tokyo - a city Hasui explored every corner of.
"Starry Night at Miyajima Shrine" - Hasui, 1928
This ambient atmosphere is something that Hasui illustrated many times, such as in ”Starry Night at Myajima Shrine”. Hasui was designing prints many years after the ukiyo-e designers of the Edo period and had a yearning nostalgia for a Japan of the past. This can be seen in his souvenir-like images such as this.
Ito was another member of the new prints movement, mastering the art of portraying beautiful women and landscapes in a traditional and nostalgic manner. Although his prints were made using the traditional woodblock method, Ito revolutionised the design process by first making a ‘master painting’: a large full-coloured watercolour image that printers and carvers would work from. After the second world war, Ito became one of the most respected people in Japan, and two years before his death was awarded the “Order of the Rising Sun”.
"After Washing Her Hair" - Ito, 1936
His portraits of demure, blushing women highlight the newly conservative outlook in 20th century Japan. This can be seen in the portraits such as “After Washing her Hair”.
"Snowy Night" - Ito, 1923
It can also be seen in “Snowy Night”, both show a more reserved and less ostentatious beauty compared to pre-war Bijin-ga prints.
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