Artistic Cultures of Asia and the Americas


The Art of Asia


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Japanese Prints



Origins and History



The first ukiyo-e appeared in 17th-century Japan in Edo, present-day Tokyo, in which, as the largest city of its day, a bourgeois culture of considerable originality had emerged. These pictures depict in vivid fashion the pleasurable side of life at that period, and for this reason they are known as ukiyo-e, "pictures of the floating world".
They are in most cases woodblock prints, in other words pictures produced by craftsmen from woodcuts on the basis of originals painted by artists. Woodblock prints are inexpensive, and can thus be reproduced in large quantities. In order to appeal to the largest possible number of buyers, these prints depicted a very broad variety of motifs: scenes from the everyday life of Edo, different views of famous places, historical pictures, landscapes, pictures of animals and flowers at different seasons of the year or times of the day, erotic pictures - no subject was left uncovered. There was a particularly heavy demand for scenes of brothels and theatres, where the people of Edo would seek pleasure and distraction. Such pictures of courtesans, geishas and tea-house waitresses formed a category of ukiyo-e in their own right, and were generically termed bijin-ga ("pictures of beautiful women"). Also in great demand were the yakusha-e, pictures of actors in popular kabuki roles.
In order to be able to answer the question of when and how these specifically Japanese ukiyo-e "pictures of the floating world" appeared, one must first go back to the landscape paintings which originated at the start of the Japanese Middle Ages during the "Period of the Warring Provinces".

The "Period of the Warring Provinces" had begun with the Onin War (1466-1467). This was followed by a series of civil wars in which the city of Kyoto, which had blossomed during its long period as capital, was destroyed, along with the social order in the whole country. During the 16th century, a historically new order, ushering in the Early Modern Age in Japan, was created by the two unifiers of the country, Oda Nobunaga (1534-1582) and Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1536— 1598). In art history, this period, during which power was exercised first by Nobunaga and then by Hideyoshi, is known as the Momoyama period.



In accordance with the spirit of the bushi, or warriors, who had gained one victory after another over the rival local lords, the art of this period was shaped by the notion of a robust warrior culture with its overtones of masculinity. The castles they erected and the paintings with which they decorated them bear witness to this warrior culture. In the 16th century, simple hilltop castles were superseded by castles on the plains designed to manifest the power of their masters. Turreted castles of many storeys were put up, from which the jokamachi ("town under the castle") could be kept under surveillance. Their interiors were decorated with sumptuous paintings of flowers and birds with magnificent golden colours, reflecting the authority of the lord. Nobunaga's
Azuchi Castle is reputed to have been the most splendid of all. It was burnt down in the year Tensho  (1582) during the rebellion led by General Akechi Mitsuhide. This castle was home to the lavish gold paintings by Kan5 Eitoku (1543- 1590) and his pupils. Few of the works of this most prestigious master of the Momoyama period, who served both Nobunaga and Hideyoshi, are still extant. One of his masterpieces, a screen with large lions, is today in the Imperial Palace collection. It is two metres tall by four broad, and depicts two gigantic lions strolling majestically around. It was with such imposing pictures that the rulers of the time wished to demonstrate their power over their subjects.

For the rest, the magnificence of the Momoyama style comes across in the florescence of its landscape paintings, which make up their own category within the genre of yamato-e. They depict pleasure trips to the immediate surroundings and show predominantly scenes from the lives of ordinary people, documenting their changing lives and lifestyles over the years.
This period, during which the lords were busy proclaiming their own de facto power in this peaceably pompous manner, also allowed the middle classes certain freedoms, within the framework of which they were able to develop fashions and pleasures of their own. Kyoto, the capital, which had been rebuilt by the citizens after the turmoil of the wars, raised its Gion quarter once more to a centre of bustling life, illustrated in Kano Eitoku's "Views of Kyoto and its Surroundings". These pictures portray vividly and in some detail the everyday lives of the people and give us an overview of the life of the city and of the famous places in the vicinity, including the seasonal festivals, the pleasures and the everyday doings of the inhabitants. These are all motifs which were later to reappear in the ukiyo-e. However, these pictures were still being commissioned by the powerful, who were enabled as a result to inform themselves about the lives of the town-dwellers. Indeed, that was their purpose: the pictures were instruments of surveillance.
Eitoku's "Views of Kyoto and its Surroundings" stimulated new developments in landscape painting. Attention now focussed upon individual aspects of everyday city life: pictures of entertainments, of festivals, of kabuki performances, of brothels etc. Painters taking their commissions from the ruling class followed the style of the Kano school, depicting their motifs from above, in a bird's eye perspective. However, there were other painters from an urban background who compromised with other styles of painting, producing numerous works depicting urban scenes and views. The Kano school had interested itself primarily in landscape painting, but its expressivity was limited to the extent that these painters took their commissions - and hence their prescribed motifs - from the ruling class, and thus did not portray things from the point of view of the bourgeoisie. As a result, the urban painters increasingly turned their attention to the life of the streets and the inhabitants of the towns and cities. Although the age was glorified as one in which a new social order had been inaugurated, in the patriarchal hierarchy which characterized the next two centuries a firm distinction continued to be made between rulers and ruled. Since the middle classes wanted to liberate themselves from this system, they demanded a place where they could be themselves, away from the everyday pressures of feudal life, where rulers and ruled were kept strictly apart. These places may have been little short of dens, but they reflected the innermost desires of the urban population. Later they were to crystallize as the most important motifs of ukiyo-e. The Shijogawara and Rokujomisujimachi districts of Kyoto developed during this period into centres of kabuki and prostitution.

It was the year Keicho  (1603) which saw the rise to fashion of kabuki, the "song-dance-art" founded by Izumo no Okuni. It arose from a desire to entertain the souls of those who had been killed during the late wars with dances in which all could take part. Gradually, however, it developed into an art form, in which performers were separate from spectators.

Illustr. below depicts "Okuni kabukizu byobu", in which Okuni, dressed in male attire, appears as a dancer in the centre of the stage, a sword over her shoulder, playing the role of the "kabuuki-mono". She thus caricatures the men who could be seen going along the streets of the city in this comical manner. It was the fashion at the time to go from tea-house to tea-house with street-musicians and actors and act out this scene of the "kabuki-mono". In this way the dances came to enjoy such great popularity' that prostitutes also started setting up stages in their brothels, where they performed the "kabuki-mono" to the musical accompaniment of a shamisen. In the course of time, the dances became increasingly lively. From them there emerged a particular courtesan's dance whose express purpose was to attract clients; this, however, was regarded as a violation of the principles of good conduct, and led to a ban on the performance of kabuki dance by prostitutes. At the same time, teenage actors were also forbidden to perform kabuki drama. Performances were restricted to men whose shaven foreheads were the sign that they had reached manhood.


Screen depicting Okuni Kabuki


Once the liberal theatre, with its dances, songs and musical performances by prostitutes and male geishas, had been put under strict control, kabuki changed to become a portrayal of actual situations. Looking at pictures of kabuki scenes in the following years, there is a clear trend away from depictions of lively Shijogawara street scenes. Instead, artists increasingly focus their interest on the people inside and outside the theatres, and on the stage on which the drama is unfolding in all its magnificence.
The pleasure quarter, where the kabuki underwent its development at the hands of the prostitutes, was transferred from Nijoyanagimachi to Rokujomisu-jimachi, where it continued with undiminished vigour. Whereas Eitoku's "Views of Kyoto and its Surroundings" depicted relationships between prostitutes and clients, interest gradually shifted to scenes within the pleasure quarter. More and more pictures were painted of the entertainments offered in the rooms of the brothels, depicting maiko against a simple golden background, attending to the entertainment of the guests (see below). Finally, individual portrayals of standing prostitutes also appeared. In general, portrayals of the beauties of the Kanbun era (1661—1673) are referred to as "Kanbun bijin zu". These include, however, not only representations of courtesans in portrait format, but also pictures of actors. In the succeeding period, these gave rise to the independent genres known as bijin-ga and yakusha-e.

Screen depicting fan dance


Depictions of general street scenes thus developed into interior views of theatres and brothels, until these eventually came to be restricted to portraits of individuals. It was no longer very far to the motifs of the ukiyo-e. The works produced in Kyoto and Osaka, however, were still reserved for the eyes of the well-to-do. This was slowly to change with the advent of the Tokugawa period.

Hideyoshi was succeeded as ruler by Tokugawa Ieyasu (1542—1616). The year Keicho  (1603) saw the establishment of the shogunate in Edo, and with it the transfer of the country's policital centre from the Kyoto/Osaka region to the east coast. Measures to build up the city quickly followed: in the centre, Edo Castle was erected, while land was reclaimed in the Tsukiji area, which saw the establishment of residences for daimyo and bushi, as well as temples and housing developments. This construction boom attracted numerous craftsmen to Edo both from the immediate surroundings and indeed from the whole country. They in turn were followed by an influx of merchants to supply their needs. There was a rapid increase in population, but it was a purely male society. The residential districts were occupied first of all by the craftsmen and artisans. Here there grew up - in contrast to those districts where the daimyo lived - a non-aristocratic society. The atmosphere in these new residential districts was perhaps somewhat coarse, but it was informal, cheerful and full of life. It is an atmosphere clearly reflected in the ukiyo-e, to which we are about to turn.
A screen entitled "Views of Famous Places in Edo" depicts the life of that city in the first half of the Kan'ei period (1624-1644). The right-hand side of this eight-section screen consists of views of various well-known sights: Sensdji and Kaneiji temples, Kandamyojin and Motoyoshiwara shrines (see below) and Nihonbashi (see below). To the left can be seen Edo Castle, Kyobashi, Shinbashi, Atagoyama, Shibazojqji temple and Shibaura. This picture does not take the bird's eye view of "Views of Kyoto and its Surroundings", however, but is painted from a lower standpoint, thus giving the beholder a feeling of nearness to the people of Edo.

Screen of "Views of Famous in Edo"

Screen of "Views of Famous in Edo"


As the city of Edo had been newly built, it had no culture of its own; for its cultural life it was indebted to the region around Kyoto and Osaka. In the year Meireki  (1657), Edo Castle was razed to the ground in a fire which also consumed the residences of the daimyo and the bushi and the houses of the local population. The virtually new city was almost entirely destroyed, along with much of the cultural heritage from the Kyoto/Osaka region. As a result, bourgeois culture had a unique chance to develop anew.

The ground was thus prepared for the birth of ukiyo-e. The woodblock print arose as the new form of expression of bourgeois art, whose technique made it possible to produce large editions at an affordable price.

The technique of woodblock printing had already been in use in Japan before the Edo period. It initially served chiefly religions (Bhuddist) ends; in the Kyoto/Osaka region, for example, Buddhist sutras and representations of Buddhist deities were reproduced on paper in this way. In the 16th century, the technique was further developed with the publication of Chinese texts and books. The greatest advantage of woodblock printing was that it enabled pictures to be reproduced in large numbers.
The most important work of this kind was "Ise monogatari", a book in which the luxurious amusements of the aristocracy were depicted in gratifying detail (see below). This is the best-preserved work of the period, dating from the year Keicho (1608), and represents a valuable piece of evidence on the origin of the woodblock printing technique.


Ise monogatari


The technique of book-printing was also brought to Edo from its original home in Kyoto and Osaka. The new capital saw a gradually increasing demand for books, which were not however delivered to Edo as finished products, but rather printed there from plates produced in Osaka. It was not long before the plates, too, began to be manufactured in Edo.
It was during this period that Tsuruya, Masuya, Yamagataya and Urokogataya - book wholesalers from Kyoto and Osaka - set up branches in Edo's commercial districts of Odenmacho and Aburacho, where they gave employment to the draughtsmen, woodblock cutters and printers already settled there. The woodblocks of the period were being produced by little-known artists, and were used to illustrate simple books intended for entertainment or as teaching materials. At first the ink pictures were coloured in yellow, green or vermilion. Over the course of time, the orginial motifs gradually evolved into an individual, informal style of painting, which in turn led to the emergence of a specific artistic style for the illustration of books.
The increase in the output of illustrated literature was fed by numbers of books on customs and festivals illustrated by artists of some renown. There was a particularly heavy demand for pictures of the red-light district of Yoshiwara and of the world of the theatre. Urokogataya, the first bookseller to settle in Edo, led the way by publishing two books, "Yoshiwaramakura" and "Yoshiwarakagami", with erotic illustrations [Manji  (1660)]. Among the books on the theatre were "Hagmooi", published by Masuya in the year Kanbun  (1662) and "Tsurezuregusa", published by Urokogataya in Kanbun  (1671).Yoshiwaras courtesans and kabuki actors were the subject of published critiques, while pictures of high-class prostitutes and their clients appeared in so-called ehon ("picture books").
At first these books were unsigned, but the quality of their woodblock prints was of a high order. It may therefore be assumed that the artists involved included Moronobu and Jihei, who went on to become masters of the art of woodblock illustration. The ehon found a ready market among the book-buying public of Edo, and they made a major contribution to the development of realistic portrayals and techniques in woodblock printing. The genre gave birth in the Enpo era (1673-1681) to a particular type of individual picture, from which the ukiyo-e developed.


The Beginnings of Ukiyo-e

Hishikawa Moronobu (1618 or 1625-1694) is regarded as the inaugurator of ukiyo-e. He came from a family of embroiderers in Awanokuni Yasudamura (in die present-day prefecture of Chiba), but moved to Edo, where book-printing was just becoming established. He learnt painting in the Kano and Tosa schools, but went on to develop a style of his own. He cut his own woodblocks of scenes from the pleasure districts and of the courtesans, and gave free rein to his brush when depicting the everyday life of Edo. Moronobu thereby established a specifically Edo style of painting, which he called yamato-ukiyo-e. Moronobu and his pupils Morofusa and Moroshige were active from the Enpo era (1673-1681) to the Genroku era (1688-1704). At this time the technique of woodblook printing was still relatively unsophisticated; the resulting prints, called sumizuri-e, were monochrome, and had to be coloured in by hand as required. Despite their simple, unpolished, even coarse impression, they provide a vivid reflection of the everyday life of the middle classes in Edo as the city was taking shape.

In the year Genna (1617), the Yoshiwara pleasure quarter was established in Nihonbashi-Fukiyamachi in the centre of Edo. Considerations of public morality led, however, to a decree ordering its transfer to Asakusa in the year Manji 2 (1659). To distinguish it from the old, the new district in Asakusa was called Shin-Yoshiwara (New Yoshiwara). Almost all ukiyo-e depict the life of this new quarter. As a guide to the "red light district" of Yoshiwara, Moronobu produced the twelve-part series "Yoshiwara no karada".  Shows (see below) one of the scenes; this is a monochrome sumizuri-e, showing in detail the entertainments available in the brothels. The series thus offers an important historical insight into life in Yoshiwara. Furthermore, it includes Moronobu's best works. As he was working on the model of the ehon, most of his works took the form of twelve-part series. While conceived as a set, each picture can be viewed in its own right as an individual work. It was only in later years that individual prints became more common; Jihei, a contemporary of Moronobu, is generally seen as the father of the single print.


Hishikawa Moronobu
People from Yoshiwara. Young Pair of Lovers


The Kaigetsudo school also chose the life of the courtesans and their sumptuous costumes in the officially approved pleasure quarter of Yoshiwara as the themes of their work. The school was founded by Kaigetsudo Yasunori (dates unknown); its painters did not at first produce pictures for reproduction, but they did paint numerous pictures with the same motifs, in order to be able to sell them in large numbers. Kaigetsudo s pupils Yasutomo, Norishige and Noritatsu produced pictures of attractive courtesans in almost identical standing poses. At first these were almost exclusively brush-and-ink drawings; towards the end of the Genroku era, however, in order to liven up the monochrome monotony of the final print, they began to colour them in with green, yellow and vermilion. The invention of these tan-e represented a further step forward in the gradual advance of colour.

Against the background of life in the expanding city of Edo, the kabuki of the Genroku era saw the appearance of the specific role of the aragoto as the antithesis of the elegant courtly culture of Kyoto. The aragoto, a lead player bursting with energy, was in tune with the effervescent spirit of the population of Edo, and soon came to enjoy great popularity. The "Kabukizu byobu"  (see below) is attributed to Moronobu's studio; on the curtain are written the words "Nakamura Kanzaburo during a performance of a kyogen", thus indicating a scene in the Nakamura theatre. Along with the Ichimura and Morita theatres, the Nakamura-<d was one of the three officially licensed playhouses in Edo, and it was also the oldest. A comparison with "Okuni kabukizu byobu" shows how stage design had developed over the years.

Steen showing kabuki scene

Torii Kiyonobu
Elegant four-section screen
depicting Ichikawa DanjuroII

The Torii school, centring on Torii Kiyonobu (1664-1729), formed close links with Edo's kabuki theatres. The members of the school painted not only posters and programmes, but also portraits of individual actors on stage. In the succeeding period, the development of ukiyo-e ran parallel with that of kabuki. In the case of theatre posters, in particular, a new style of painting was developed, emphasizing the role of the aragoto with his bulging muscles. The screen reproduced in (see illustr.) depicts Ichikawa Danjuro, the creator of the aragoto role. The atmosphere of the Edo kabuki at this period comes across very clearly. In accordance with the tastes and inclinations of the citizens, a contemporary of Danjuro's by the name of Torii Kiyomasu (dates unknown) developed a style of his own under the label of "yakusha-e no Torii" ("Torii of the actor-portraits" - see below) and introduced it as an independent genre.

Torii Kiyomasu
Shibaraku ("halt!") pose, adopted by Ichikawa Danjuro I


As though to break the monopoly of yakusha portraiture, Okumura Masanobu (1686-1764), who had had the advantage of training in the Hishikawa and Torii schools, introduced a new stylistic trend. In addition, he managed a bookshop named "Akabyotan". On the basis of his experience of both sides of the business, he made a valuable contribution to both the qualitative and quantitative development of ukiyo-e. It was he who was responsible for the extension of the particular character of the yakusha-e to the bijin-ga, or pictures of beautiful women. As models he used not just courtesans, but bourgeois women too. The more elegant the ladies became, the more he adapted his technique. Instead of vermilion, he made increasing use of crimson (beni), in some cases mixed with indigo and yellow. Thus arose the beni-e. Masanobu was also the originator of the urushi-e, or lacquer picture, in which the ink was mixed with bone-glue, which produced a shimmering effect in the costumes of the actors thus depicted. If copper-dust was sprinkled on it, then the picture took on a golden sheen. Masanobu also experimented with very hard paper, in order to be able to hang individual figures as "post pictures" (hashira-e), and in addition he introduced a further innovation by arranging three pictures in the hosoban format. His new-ideas very soon made him popular. One of his pupils, Toshinobu, was active during his master's urushi-e period, and went on to surpass him in elegance and colourful expressivity.

Masanobu's uki-e of the interiors of theatres and other rooms are mostly symmetrical in their construction, which also creates a sense of spatial depth. He thus made an early, if imperfect, attempt to absorb Western art, and thereby prepared the ground for the adoption of linear perspective by the landscape painters of a later period. Alongside Masanobu's output, works by Nishimura Shigenaga and Torii Kiyotada (see below) have also been preserved.

Torii Kiyotada
Uki-e, theatre scene

Register marks (Kento)

Under the influence of polychromatic printing from China, a new technique developed in the Enkyo era (1744-1748). After being printed in black-and-white, the sheet was printed once more in a second colour, usually red or green. As crimson was most commonly employed, this technique came to be known as benizuri-e. In order to ensure precise alignment of the two printings, it was necessary to introduce kento or register marks; these marks were made in the corners of the plate and indicated the angle at which the paper was to be laid against it. Mostly these register marks left an impression on the paper, visible at the edge of the print (see illustr.). The benizuri-e technique made it possible to produce prints in splendid colour, a major advance in the development of ukiyo-e. Simple as it was, it endured through the Horeki era (1751-1764) to the start of the Meiwa era (1764-1772).

The bijin-ga produced using the benizuri-e technique by Ishikawa Toyonobu (1711-1785) were in a style of his own. His female figures have supple faces and bodies (see below); it was with him that bijin-ga achieved the status of an independent genre, exercising an enormous influence on subsequent artists. Coloration came to be increasingly differentiated. "Since I have not spent my whole life hanging around the pleasure districts, I was able to depict conditions there very well," we are told in the book "Ukiyo-e ruiko".Torii Kiyomitsu (1735—1785) was one of the third generation of the Torii school. He and Toyonobu mark the end of the initial period of ukiyo-e. Kiyomitsu left numerous masterpieces in the benizuri style, but he liberated himself from the robust images of the Torn school, introducing a much more delicate and refined technique. His pupils Kiyoshige, Kiyotsune and Kiyohiro also painted predominantly yakusha-e.

Ishikawa Toyonobu
Beauty beneath Flowers

Suzuki Harunobu

The Development of Nishiki-e

The beginnings of the monochrome ink picture (sumi-e) now lay about 100 years in the past. The intervening period had witnessed the development of polychrome woodblock prints. The year Meiwa t (1764) saw the adoption by the affluent bushi and burghers of Edo of a fashion by which a new calendar picture was displayed each month. These pictures were exchanged one for another, thus broadening the market for extravagant woodblock prints considerably. The initiators of the fashion were a bushi, Okubo Jishiro Tadanobu, who had adopted the literary pseudonym of Kyogawa, and Abe Hachinojo Masahiro, whose pseudonym was Sakei. Not only were they connoisseurs of woodblock prints, they also encouraged co-operation between famous painters and woodblock cutters and printers, in order to ensure a source of the finest possible prints for their collections. One result of this patronage of art and craft was the appearance of the nishiki-e, in which a number of colours were freely combined.
Among those who produced and exchanged these calendar pictures was Suzuki Harunobu (1725-1770), who thereby made a major contribution to the development of nishiki-e (see illustr.). He is said to have been a pupil of Nishimura Shigenaga, but he was also heavily influenced by Nishikawa Sukenobu - who came from the Osaka/Kyoto region - as well as by the Chinese painter Kyuei. With great imaginative flair, he transposed classical novels into a modern setting, illustrating them with colourful pictures of elegant beauties. These novels enjoyed a very broad readership. Harunobu is also well-known through his portrayal of bourgeois beauties in the nishiki-e style. Typical are his Osen of the Teashop in front of the Kasamon Inari Shrine, and his Ofuji of the Haberdashery in front of the Temple of Asakusa Kannon (see below). In view of his high reputation, his style was widely imitated. The works of Suzuki Harushige (1747—1818), in particular, are virtually only distinguishable from those of Harunobu by their signatures. Harushige later assumed the name of Shiba Kokan, and adapted European painting for the Japanese market.


Suzuki Harunobu
Yanagiya Ofuji

Isoda Koryusai
Wandering Priest

Isoda Koryusai (fl. c. 1765-1788), a contemporary of Harunobu's,adhered at the start of his career, under the name of Haruhiro, closely to the style of Harunobu. However, from the beginning of the An'ei era (1772-1781), he developed his own form of expression, based on sensuous and realistic pictures of beautiful women. His most important works include the series "Hinagata wakana no hatsumoyo", pictures of courtesans dressed in the latest fashion. The series has gone down in the history of woodblock printing as the first from which more than too prints were made from each block. In addition, by incorporating not just one figure but several, cleverly arranged in a confined space, Koryusai continued and developed the hashira-e style initiated by Masanobu (see illustr.).

A further development of nishiki-e made it possible to use several blocks and to apply different colours, thus enabling artists to achieve ever more realistic images. Yakusha-e grew more and more popular, as many of the actors' followers showed ever-increasing interest in acquiring portraits of their idols. Especially popular were the works of Ippitsusai Buncho (ft. c. 1764—1790) and Katsukawa Shunsho (1726-1792). The masterpieces of both in the actor-portrait genre appeared in book form under the title "Ehon butai ogi" [Meiwa (1770)]. Buncho was another of those influenced by Harunobu, and many of his works testify to his acuity of observation and delicacy of touch. Shunsho did not hold with the stereotype yakusha-e of the Toni school, and for his part portrayed the actors as they appeared during stage performances, thus capturing their characteristic poses. This style of representation appealed very much to the public, so that from now on, actors were only depicted in portrait form. Shunsho's pupils Shunko (1743-1812), Shun'ei (1762-1819), Shuncho (fl. c. 1780-1795) and Shunro (1760—1849, later to achieve fame under the name of Hokusai) were the leading representatives of the Katsukawa school.
The nishiki-e technique enormously extended the scope of carving and printing, resulting in the development of a very much finer and more detailed manner of composition.


The Golden Age of Ukiyo-e

It was during the Genroku era (1688-1704) that Edo's home-grown culture enjoyed its first flowering, and in the Tenmei era (1781-T789) that it experienced its second. It was during this time that an independent bourgeois culture took shape, in which both the theatre and the pleasure-houses flourished. The people of Edo led a free and easy life. Great value was attached to entertainments of all kinds, for example excursions to the surrounding countryside as appropriate to the season. The middle classes came to enjoy a moderate affluence, and for the ukiyo-e, too, it was the dawn of a golden age.
There were by now an increasing number of print artists. The first of this new era was Kitao Shigemasa (1739-1820), who had concentrated in particular upon book illustrations since the An'ei era, but had also painted bijin-ga. His preference, however, was not for the delicate ladies of Harunobu or Buncho, but for rather more stately figures (see below). His pupils were highly talented: Masanobu (1761-1816), for example, later wrote books under the name of Santo Kyoden. Masayoshi (1764-1824) also changed his name, and as the court painter Sukigata Keisai bequeathed many works from this period.

Kitao Shigemasa

Torii Kiyonaga
The Evening of the Star Festival

A list of masters of the Tenmei era would not be complete without Torii Kiyonaga (1752—1815), one of the fourth generation of the Torii school of yakuslm-e, though he was in fact better known for his bijin-ga. His delicate brush-strokes and clear coloration when depicting his well-proportioned, healthy-looking women earned him the highest praise. One of his masterpieces is entitled "Okawabata Yusuzumi" (see illustr.): it is a perfect example of the precision which he had acquired during his apprenticeship as an illustrator. Against the background of the Sumidagawa river, three women are depicted, one wearing the broad apron of a tea-shop waitress. The finely-patterned kimonos suit them well; the garments are Kiyonaga's way of underlining the beauty of the women themselves. In order to achieve a maximum of naturalness, Kiyonaga would extend his compositions to two or three sheets. In this picture, all three figures are looking in the same direction; to the right, therefore, another picture was intended. The views of Edo which form the background to his bijin-ga are typical of his landscape style. He can be considered in this regard as the precursor of Hokusai and Hiroshige. Shuncho and Toshimitsu (1757—1820) imitated the style of Kiyonaga, and themselves left a number of bijin-ga masterpieces.


Kitagawa Utamaro
Keizetsuro Hinazuru in the Corridor

The Kansei era (1789-1801), which followed the Tenmei, is regarded as the period when the art of woodblock printing reached its zenith. It witnessed the creation by Kitagawa Utamaro (1753-1806) of his masterpieces, mostly seated female figures. During the Tenmei era, Utamaro had met the publisher Tsutaya Juzaburo, who had made his own debut with Toriyama Sekien. In his early days as an illustrator, Utamaro worked under the name of Kitagawa Toyoaki. Later he extended his activities to the production of ukiyo-e, and assumed the name of Utamaro. The way his bijin-ga were composed brought him rapid popularity: he made the faces of his models the focal point of his pictures (okubi-e). No longer were the garments and the externals the most important feature, but rather the ideal beauty that lay concealed within his sitters' inner being (see illustr.). The invention of the mica-dust print (kira-e) also goes back to Utamaro. At that time, Yoshiwara was the most popular and the most populous pleasure quarter in Edo, and not surprisingly, Utamaro used its courtesans as his models. But prostitutes
from unlicensed red light districts, as well as quite ordinary women, also figure m his woodblock prints. He was so popular that not only was he feted as the master of bijin-ga, but the whole concept of ukiyo-e became synonymous with Ins name. His reputation attracted numerous artists, who attached themselves to him and became his pupils. The most important of these was Eishosai Choki (fl. c. 1780—after 1800). One man to rival Utamaro was Chobunsai Eishi (1756-1829), who hailed from a samurai family. As the eldest son of one Tokiyuki, he was destined to assume responsibility as head of the family, but he preferred to become an artist, and renounced his birthright in favour of his next-of-kin. Eishi was influenced by Kiyonaga and Shuncho, and he drew inspiration from Utamaro too. His works display a peculiar elegance and nobility. His pupils Chokosai Eisho, Ichirakutei Eisui and Choensai Eishin - whose dates are unknown - likewise produced primarily bijin-ga. The late period of Utamaro and his successors can justifiably be called the "golden age of bijin-ga".


It was at this time that Japanese artists first encountered Western painting. Utagawa Toyoharu (1735-1814) was the founder of the Utagawa school, whose creativity flowered towards the end of the Edo period. He is also noteworthy for his development of the uki-e form initiated by Masanobu and Shigenaga. Toyoharu introduced the linear perspective of Western painting into his Japanese landscapes, thus creating a new form of uki-e. In so doing. he gave a new impetus to ukiyo-e landscapes. At this time, Harushige changed his name to Shiba Kokan, and together with his friend Hiraga Gennai developed a new technique: the copperplate engraving, which was much used for landscapes (see below). The new technique also influenced the work of Hokusai and Hiroshige.


Shiba Kokan
Copperplate engraving

Toshusai Sharaku
Ichikawa Yaozo III as
Tanabe Bunzo

In concentrating upon the bijin-ga masters of the Kansei era such as Utamaro, we should not overlook another master, in this case of yakusha-e, Toshusai Sharaku. His creative period began in the year Kansei  (1794) and lasted only eleven months. In this short time, he produced the incredible number of 134 actor portraits, and 9 pictures of sumo wrestlers. His yakusha-e mostly took the form of okubi-e, in other words, portraits of actors whose characteristic facial and personality features he gently exaggerated. Their artistic talents also come across well in these pictures. Sharaku's perspicuity is unmatched by any other master of ukiyo-e (see illustr.). Little is known of his life: he appeared from nowhere, and disappeared again soon after, but his great talent has assured him of an enduring reputation. Both in Japan and abroad, Sharaku's life and work became a topic of research in view of the desire to discover more about his life and career. The year 1910 saw the publication by the German scholar Julius Kurth of a book entitled simply "Sharaku" (see below), which gave an impetus to further studies.

Julius Kurth


At the same time, Utagawa Toyokuni (1769-1825), a pupil of Toyoharu, was also active; indeed, he was so successful that his impact on ukiyo-e endured until the end of the Edo period. Actors from Kansei (1794) onwards form the subject of his series "Yakusha butai no sugatae". His works were extremely popular, and he may be said to have been the leading exponent of actor-portraiture of his day. The people of Edo took his elegant lines, flowing style and clear coloration to their hearts, thereby determining the course to be taken by yakusha-e until the close of the Edo period. Toyokum's book "Yakusha mgao hayageiko" (see below), dating from Bunka  (1817), demonstrates the typical features and modern techniques of the Utagawa school. The people of Edo were extremely enthusiastic about his works, so it may be assumed that he captured the artistic taste of the contemporary bourgeoisie. Toyokuni did not confine himself to yakusha-e, however, but left many bijin-ga too. Many of his pupils were extremely talented, and the Utagawa school became the largest ukiyo-e school of the Bunka and Bunsei eras. Among its most important members were Kunimasa, Kunisada, Kumyasu, Munimaru and Kunivoshi.


Utagawa Toyokuni
Actor portraits


Ukiyo-e towards the End of the Edo Period

The Tenmei and Kansei eras were the heyday of bourgeois culture; under the influence of the Kansei reforms, however, decay began to set in. The priority of the shogunate was how to react to the demands of foreign powers for the country to be opened up; in consequence, domestic politics were neglected. The arts, too, received no new impulses. They lost their naturalness. Exaggeration and caricature were all that people could now expect.
This is the background against which the work of the Utagawa school must be judged. Utagawa Kumsada (1786-1864), the most talented among them, produced numerous yaknsha-e, such as the "Oatari kyogen no uchi", along with scenes of everyday life. Of all ukiyo-e artists, he has left the largest number of ukiyo-e, depicting a wide variety of motifs. Under the name of Utagawa Toyokuni III, he became the leading figure in the Utagawa school, and from the Tenpo era onwards was the most important exponent of ukiyo-e.

Another tendency within the Utagawa school was initiated by Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1797—1861) with his warrior pictures (musha-e). At first he also produced yakusha-e and bijin-ga, but the major corpus of his oeuvre consists of historical pictures. On account of his vivid depiction of heroes, he was known as "Musha-e no Kuniyoshi" (Kumyoshi, the warrior painter). Among his published work was a series of pictures illustrating the novel "Suikoden" by Kyokutei Bakin, dating from the year Bunsei (1825) (see below), which achieved great popularity. The publisher, Kagaya Kichiemon, had been previously little known, but this series brought him instant celebrity. Kuniyoshi also painted landscapes and pictures of fishes in the Western style. For a master to be active across so broad a spectrum was very uncommon. He became extremely popular: his school continues to this day. Its leading representatives include Tsukioka Yoshitoshi, Mizuno Toshikata, Kaburagi Kiyokata and Ito Shinsui.
Towards the end of the Edo period, Kikukawa Eizan (1787—1867) and Keisai Eisen (1791—1848) were also producing bijin-ga. Eizan followed the later style of Utamaro (see below), and supplied evidence of his talents in many fields. From the type of strong-willed woman with evident joie de vivre portrayed by Utamaro, Kunisada took over the finely drawn eyes and projecting lower lip.

Utagawa Kuniyoshi
One of the 100 Heroes from the Popular Tale of Suikoden.
Tanmeiji Rogen Shogo

Kikukawa Eizan
8 Views from the Tale of Prince Genji
Return of the Ships to Akashi


Katsushika Hokusai (1760-r 849) took up painting m or around the year An'ei (1779) under the name of Katsukawa Shunro. Strictly speaking, Hokusai should already have been mentioned in connection with the emergence of nishiki-e; since his characteristic pictures are landscapes, however, and since his masterpiece, the series " Views of Mount Fuji" (Fugaku sanjurokkei) was published in the Tenpo era, he is discussed here. Hokusai was a pupil of Shunsho, but studied the techniques of numerous schools and continually tried out new styles, among them those of the Kano, Tosa and Korin schools, in addition to deriving inspiration from Chinese and Western painting. Later he found a style all of his own, adopting the name by which he is now known. Devoting himself to landscape painting, he attracted the attention of all his contemporaries. He painted a whole variety of motifs, did illustrating work, designed ink prints, and carved woodblocks himself, yet few individual pictures by him survive. His name is inseparable from the "36 Views of Mount Fuji'", which dates from the first half of the Tenpo era. The depictions of the sacred mountain from a variety of viewpoints using highly individual compositional techniques constitute his most important ukiyo-e in the field of landscape.

Utagawa Hiroshige (1797—1858) was a pupil of Utagawa Toyohiro (1773— 1829), who had studied together with Utagawa Toyokum (1769 — 1825). In the history of landscape prints, Hiroshige is no less important than Hokusai, but in comparison with his older colleague. Hiroshige lived a relatively sedate life. He, too, was active at first in the genres of yakuslia-e and bijin-ga. In the year Tenpo 1 (1830), he caused a stir with his series of "Famous Places in the Eastern Capital" (Totomeisho), which appeared under the signature "Ichiyusai" through the Kawaguchi Shozo publishing house. It was not until two years later, in Tenpo (1832), that he accompanied the lokuoawa government on a journey to Kyoto. On the way, he made a number of sketches, which were brought out on his return to Edo by the publishing house of Hoeido under the title "Tokaido gojusan tsugi no uchi" (53 Stations on the Tokaido). The series was typical of his romantic landscape style. It deals with the four seasons and the everyday lives of the people of Japan, and it made him and his works well-known throughout the country. Hiroshige depicted other famous locations, for example the Kisokaido, but his work concentrates largely on Edo and its environs, where he lived. One of his masterpieces is an eight-part series featuring famous sights of Edo, "Edokinko hakkei". He gives expression to their beauty through great precision of line, sophisticated composition and a romantic feeling for nature. In his work "Tamagawa shugetsu", he depicts a scene on the banks of the Tamagawa on a moonlit autumn evening in such a way that the viewer really feels the chill in the air. Here, as in many of his works, he included a poem, an indication of his literary upbringing. It is above all his highly personal sensitivity to nature, based upon his feeling for lyrical effect, which conveys the impression that we, the viewers, are really present at the place depicted, a statement which is no less valid now than it was in his day.

During the Kaei era (1848-1854), many foreign ships came to Japan. It was a period of unrest, a state of affairs reflected in the nkiyo-e of the time. Numerous pictures and caricatures were produced which alluded to the current situation in the country. Following the Meiji restoration in 1868, all kinds of cultural imports came to Japan from the West, photography and printing techniques being received with particular enthusiasm. As a result, the art of ukiyo-e went into decline.

Ukiyo-e is an art form with a history spanning more than three centuries. It developed as the bourgeoisie's own form of cultural expression, and is unique in the world. In the course of time, the style of ukiyo-e naturally underwent changes, as did the lives of the people with which these woodblock prints were closely linked. But from Japan they have travelled the world; unbeknown to their creators, ukiyo-e have had a profound influence on modern Western painting. With this in mind, we can still appreciate their great vitality today.

Mitsunobu Sato


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