Artworks and Artists of Ukiyo-e Japanese Prints
This print, deploying an aerial perspective which was a noted feature of Japanese art, depicts two lovers, a samurai warrior whose sword can be seen in the foreground lying beside him, and a woman whose discarded musical instrument lies in the right middle distance with the diagonal of its neck extending toward the right corner. Above the musical instrument, an outer robe seems to float through the air as if it had just been cast off. The room is depicted in elemental forms by means of horizontal and vertical lines that intersect at the couple, whose figures begin to flow together in the curvilinear forms of their figures, and robes. On the left an external balcony can be seen through an open panel.
Moronobu's family was in the textile business and he applied his knowledge in the pattern of the robes, but also in his understanding of how fabric moves when on the human body. His mastery of line originated in his understanding of calligraphy, as shown here in his varying thickness of preciseness to create the figures and their surroundings. As the lovers' sleeves and robes move in parallel lines, their fabric and figures begin to merge where their bodies meet. This is an early example of shunga and may have been the frontispiece for a 12 print series depicting the dance of sexual relations, as the frontispiece was often more decorous and posited as a kind of prelude.
Polychrome woodblock print; ink and color on paper - The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, New York
Poem by Fujiwara no Motozane (c. 860) from the Series Thirty-Six Poets
In this print, a young woman, holding a bamboo rod in her left hand used to hang clothes upon a line, turns to look over her shoulder and lifts her right hand as if to stop her son from chasing a small chick. Along a fence in the middle left of the print, white unohana flowers bloom, indicating that it is early summer. A poem by Fujiwara no Motozane, one of the Thirty-Six Immortal Poets included in Harunobo's series of images, is written in a cloud-like shape along the upper part of the print. The words are translated by Jack Hillier as:
"Blossoming now in our mountain village,
the unohana flowers look like snow
still lingering on the hedge."
The flowing lines of the figures energetically curve from right to left and contrast with the flowering branches, curving from left to right, to convey graceful movement. Horunobu often blurred exterior and interior worlds to create a feeling of natural harmony, but his pioneering naturalism, depicting an actual mother and child in ordinary activity, made his work influential. Ukiyo-e's frequent depictions of a mother with her child, emphasizing line and design to convey emotion and relationship, influenced the work of Mary Cassatt as seen in The Child's Bath (1893).
The print also exemplifies Horunobu's subtle use of color, drawn from the Torii School's Benizuri-e "rose prints" application in which a limited number of colors, often including green and pink, were applied to the printing process. These varying shades both unify the composition and create a sense of vibrant life.
Polychrome woodblock print; ink and color on paper with embossing (karazuri) - The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, New York
Interior of a Bathhouse
This print depicts a number of women, nude or partially robed, in various activities of bathing. Bathing was an important ritual in Japanese culture and communal bathhouse scenes were incorporated into ukiyo-e's everyday subject matter as one of the few to include treatment of the nude. The print is a double sheet print, with four women on the left side and four on the right, one of whom is washing a baby. In the upper center of both panels, a washing area is partially screened, showing a woman's lower torso as she washes herself. To the left, a small open panel and another, even smaller above it, captures a glimpse of the men's bathing area. The water buckets, some filled, others tipped over and empty are arranged in a diagonal line, that echoed by the diagonals of the flower board creates a vertical movement from the kneeling women in the foreground toward the partially screened bathing area. The composition's use of vertical and horizontal lines contrasts with the curvilinear figures, each of which is individualized, both in physical features and activities.
This particular print was formerly owned by the Impressionist painter Edgar Degas, who was influenced not only by its vertical and horizontal composition, but the poses of the figures, caught in ordinary activity that is both intimate and revealing. Kiyonaga made several variations of this image, and this print is a second variation as the woman standing on the right sheet has been changed toward a more modest pose.
Woodblock print (nishiki-e), ink and color on paper - Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, MA
Poem of the Pillow
Poem of the Pillow included 12 images in a folding album, and this is the tenth print in the series depicting two lovers at a teahouse. The woman reclines with her back to the viewer, as her torso curves to her nude left leg, revealed as her clothing slips down. In front of her, a man leans in for a kiss, his form flowing above hers, as his bare legs meet hers on the left. Through the transparent black and white fabric of his robe, their bodies meet, as her left foot reaches over behind his leg. The subtle color palette of the red and black patterns conveys a depth of feeling, while in the background a balcony railing, a yellow shutter on the right, and a green plant extending above the railing create a sense of privacy, as the tea and bowl containing food on the right create a sense of intimacy.
More than half of Utamaro's prints were shunga, and he is considered by Japanese art historians, to be the great master of the genre. Poem of the Pillow, or "Utamakura" was accompanied by a poem from a classical Japanese poet, which read, "Its beak caught firmly / In the clamshell / The snipe cannot fly away / Of an autumn evening." Rather than a particular image, the plethora of erotic imagery in shunga prints had a strong influence on European artists, particularly Audrey Beardsley, Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, and Pablo Picasso. The art critic and collector Edmond de Goncourt described how the sculptor Auguste Rodin, "asks to see my Japanese erotica, and he is full of admiration before the women's drooping heads, the broken lines of their necks, the rigid extension of arms, the contractions of feet, all the voluptuous and frenetic reality of coitus, all the sculptural twining of bodies melted and interlocked in the spasm of pleasure." This unabashed treatment of sexual subjects was carried over into the spirit of European art.
Color woodblock print - The British Museum, London
Three Beauties of the Present Day
This nishiki-e, or full color print, depicts three women noted for their beauty, on the left, Takashima Hisa, and on the right, Naniwa Kita, both of whom worked as waitresses in their family's teahouses. Tomimoto Toyohina, a geisha, is depicted in the middle. Each woman wears her family crest, like the oak leaf motif on Hisa's left upper arm, visible in the lower left of the canvas, and reflects the artist's innovative subject matter in portraying three women from the urban population, rather than the traditional subject of courtesans of the pleasure district.
The work exemplifies his pioneering style both in developing nishiki-e, and in adding mica dust, as seen in the shimmering effect of the background. The women, in the ōkubi-e (big-head) style, are individualized, as the print registers subtle differences of personality, and the rivalry between the two teahouses is conveyed in the somewhat confrontational face-to-face gaze of Hisa and Kita. In Japan at the time teahouses were ranked and both Kita and Hisa drew many to their family's teahouses, fostering a kind of competition that extended to the different districts where each teahouse was located. Utamaro was to depict the three women in subsequent prints, and this image became so popular that other artists also portrayed the trio.
The artist's triangular composition, referencing the tradition of The Three Vinegar Wine Tasters (16th century), a painting which depicted Buddha, Laozi, and Confucius to represent the essential unity of the three religions they founded, is meant to emphasize the unity of beauty, while acknowledging its subtle individuation. As a result of Utamoro's influence, many ukiyo-e artists adopted triangular composition in the years that followed. Utamaro's depictions of beautiful women, employing strong line and flat areas of color, influenced European artists as varied as James Abbott McNeill Whistler and Henri Toulouse-Lautrec.
Nishiki-e color woodprint block - Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Massachusetts
kabuki Actor Ōtani Oniji III as Yakko Edobei in the Play The Colored Reins of a Loving Wife
This dramatic print depicting the famous actor Otani Oniji II in a three-quarter view, uses bold strong lines and simplified elements to convey a feeling of ruthless malevolence. Playing the part of an evil servant, Yakko Edobei, who was only too happy to carry out his samurai master's orders, the actor here becomes synonymous with his role as he is caught in mie, a moment of extreme emotion with the dramatic facial expression that characterized kabuki. The white of skin, as his grasping hands erupt from his body and the white of his bare chest curves up to his aggressive leering expression, is highlighted by the surrounding black outlines of his robe and hair. Against a grey background, the figure is flat, almost cutout, and modernist in its realistic psychological portrayal.
Reduced to essential elements, both the actor and the role he is playing, as shown in his clothing and the crest he wears, would have been immediately recognizable to the viewer.
Sharaku is a somewhat mysterious figure, unassigned to any school and his identity, his date of birth, and death uncertain. He was active in ukiyo-e only from 1794-1795, and most of the 140 prints attributed to him portray actors. In his own time, his work provoked attention but was also somewhat unpopular, due to his bold and often unflattering realism. Yet, his energetic and reductive compositions with their unflinching insight have subsequently led to his being considered the great master of yakusha-e. Henri Toulouse-Lautrec was particularly influenced by Sharaku's boldly profiled and individualized portraits, and adopted a similar treatment, including the exaggerated grimaces, in depicting the denizens of the Moulin Rouge and other Parisian night spots.
Polychrome woodblock print; ink, color, white mica on paper - The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, New York
The Dream of the Fisherman's Wife
The Dream of the Fisherman's Wife, also known as Girl Diver and Octopuses, is a woodblock print that was included in a three-volume book of erotica called Kinoe no Komatsu and has become Hokusai's most famous shunga design. The work depicts a female ama, or shell diver, entangled in the limbs of two octopuses. The large octopus performs cunnilingus on her largely emphasized genitals, while the smaller octopus fondles her mouth and left nipple. The woman seems to derive great pleasure from the exchange, denoted by her relaxed mien and blissful face. In the text above Hokusai's image, the big octopus says he will bring the girl to the dragon God of the sea, Ryūjin's, undersea palace.
The piece is said to have derived inspiration from a popular story of the time that appeared often in ukiyo-e art. In the tale, Princess Tamatori is a young shell diver married to Fujiwara no Fuhito, searching for a pearl stolen from his family by Ryūjin. As she dives beneath the water to help reclaim the pearl, an army of sea creatures pursues her. She absconds the pearl by cutting open her breast and hiding it within but dies from her wound soon after reaching the surface.
Hokasai's artistic peer Yanagawa Shigenobu also created a similar image of a woman in sexual relations with an octopus in his collection Suetsumuhana in 1830. The work has also influenced other artists such as Felicien Rops, Auguste Rodin, Louis Auccon, Fernand Khnopff, and Picasso who painted his own version in 1903. It is also cited as a forebear to contemporary "tentacle erotica," which has appeared in Japanese animation and manga since the late-20th century.
Woodblock print on paper - Included in the book Kinoe no Komatsu (English: Young Pines)
Under the Wave off Kanagawa (also known as The Great Wave)
This print, which is internationally recognized, depicts a great wave (the alternative title for this work is The Great Wave), painted in Hokusai's favored Prussian blue, its crest breaking in stylized depictions of white foam. The wave almost fills the left side of the canvas, and its curvilinear energy seems to threaten to engulf Mount Fuji. This engulfing effect is created by the artist's subtle use of perspective and his deploying a horizon posited in the lower third of the painting. Among the waves, a number of Japanese boats can be seen, their long curved forms, distinguished by their planes of contrasting color, echoing the lines of the waves. The scene has an impending energy, depicting the moment just before the wave breaks. Mount Fuji, the highest mountain in Japan, was traditionally felt to be a symbol of immortality, a totem of kami, but its diminished form here, as the wave towers above it, suggests that the idea of immortality is as transitory as the boats about to be swamped and torn apart.
Art curator Timothy Clark called One Hundred Views of Mount Fuji, from which the print was taken, as "one of the greatest illustrated books." The series was produced in three volumes and actually included 102 views of the mountain. It was produced at a time when Hokusai, who often changed his artist name, was calling himself Gakyō rōjin ("Old Man Crazy to Paint"), or Manji ("Ten Thousand Things", or "Everything"), showing his intent to create a comprehensive tour de force. Elements of Hokusai's work, innovatively varied and prolific, influenced countless European artists like Claude Monet who had a print of The Great Wave displayed at his home in Giverny. Paul Gauguin, Auguste Rodin, Edgar Degas, Gustave Klimt, Édouard Manet, Vincent van Gogh, and Franz Marc collected his prints. Degas was influenced by Hokusai's depiction of the human figure in non-posed and ordinary activity, while his curvilinear forms and wave-like compositions influenced the development of Art Nouveau.
Polychrome woodblock print; ink and color on paper - The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, New York
Ejiri, Suruga Province (A Sudden Gust of Wind)
This print shows a number of travelers on a road curving through reed-filled fields near a lake with Mount Fuji outlined on the left. The woman on the lower left is hit by the shock of the wind as her clothing swirls up, shrouding her face. The papers she has been carrying are torn from her hands into the center of the canvas, mingling with the leaves torn from the two thin trees. Bent and pushed by the wind, a man to her right hangs on to his hat, while another looks up at his hat carried up into the air on the far right. The two diagonal verticals of the thin trees on the left tilt with the wind emphasizing the movement that Hokusai captures, as his wryly observed depiction of ordinary people intent on their purposes disrupted by a ordinary gust symbolizes the disruptive force of nature. The curving landscape that folds in waves of repeating lines and colors conveys a sense of vastness, and the light colored horizon, no more than a wash of color and a few simple lines, evokes the serene and eternal presence of Mount Fuji while the people try to keep themselves from flying away like the materials that they have been carrying.
This print has continued to influence contemporary artists. Jeff Wall's A Sudden Gust of Wind (after Hokusai) (1993), a photograph in a light box, references Hokusai's print by showing four figures beneath two thin trees, as they are struck by the wind, in a modern industrial farming landscape.
Polychrome woodblock print; ink and color on paper - The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, New York
Flock of Chickens
This print by the master Hokusai, realistically depicting different breeds of chickens all huddled together, creates a circular swirl of form, as the birds become a wave of color and curvilinear flow. Hokusai's influential work was itself inspired by European models, in this case by scientific illustrations of different species. Yet his emphasis on design, the dramatic red, white, and black color palette with variations of brown and gold, exemplify Japanese aesthetic principles, as his kachō-ga imagery here becomes an image of birds arranged as if they were variations of one blossoming form. The curving lines of the roosters' tail feathers both create a sense of movement and unify the image, strongly outlined by black against the blue background. These prints were often later produced as handheld paper fans, reflected through the compositional shape in this work.
Hokusai's kachô-ga prints had a great influence on European designers and artists in the mid-19th century, as seen as Felix Bracquemond's Service Rousseau (c. 1867) tableware inspired by Hokusai's manga images depicting many species of birds and flowers.
Woodblock print (nishiki-e); ink and color on paper - National Museum at Tokyo, Tokyo, Japan
Takiyasha the Witch and the Skeleton Specter from the Story of Utö Yasutaka
This triptych, depicting a scene from the Story of Utö Yasutaka (1807) by Santö Kyöden, creates a dramatic panorama as an animated human skeleton fills the far right panel and extends, menacingly, in the middle panel, to tower over the huddled Oya Taro Mitsukuni and his companion. In the left panel, Princess Takiyasha holds a scroll from which she recites the spell to call up the skeleton. The Princess was the daughter of a warlord who had been killed while rebelling against the emperor, and Mitsukuni had been sent by the emperor to take over the castle. The diagonal lines of the floor that run from the left panel to the right create movement, drawing the viewer's eye to the skeleton on the right, and unifying the three panels. The hanging drapes in the left panel extend into the center panel, further emphasizing the huddled fear of the two men, cowering, as Mitsukuni turns a white face toward the skeleton.
Kuniyoshi combines a traditional story with a modern knowledge of anatomy, as his accuracy, derived from Western anatomical drawings, is combined with a Japanese sense of form. The cropping in the right panel creates a sense of dread overflowing the frame. Kuniyoshi was known for combining scenes from traditional Japanese culture and folklore with Western elements, in order to create psychologically compelling narratives.
These narratives, drawn from Japanese literature, folklore, and history, were a common theme of ukiyo-e, whether in a single image portraying an actor in a kabuki role from a story that would be immediately recognizable to the audience or in a work like Hokusai's One Hundred Ghost Tales (1833).
Color woodblock print - Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Plum Estate, Kameido (Kameido Umeyashiki)
This print from the famous series, One Hundred Famous Views of Edo (1856-1859), depicts a plum garden seen through the branches of the Sleeping Dragon Plum, a famous and sacred tree in Tokyo, whose white double blossoms were believed to drive away darkness. Other plum trees with the early buds of spring extend into the distance where a number of figures can be seen along the horizon, where a light sky darkens into red in the upper third of the print. The artist innovatively used the vertical orientation of a portrait print, and an exaggerated perspective that creates a cropped close-up of the Sleeping Dragon Plum. The composition becomes almost abstract, and the red sky with the sign in the upper left and the seals in the upper right further flattens the pictorial plane. The somewhat somber color palette, and shading on the wide branches of the framing tree, convey the bittersweet aesthetic of traditional Japanese art, as the somber, aged tree, frames the viewing of the plum blossoms associated with spring and romantic feeling.
One Hundred Famous Views of Edo, which actually included 119 landscapes, was one of Hiroshige's final works and was commissioned to feature the rebuilding of the city after the 1855 earthquake. Vincent van Gogh was greatly influenced by Plum Park in Kameido, painting a copy of it in 1877, though, noting the somber effect of the original, he altered the colors toward a more vigorous and youthful effect.
Woodblock print - Brooklyn Museum of Art, Brooklyn, New York
Sudden Shower over Shin-Ōhashi Bridge and Atake
This iconic print depicts a number of people crossing the Shin-Ōhashi wooden bridge built in 1694 and spanning the Shimoda River, as they are caught in a sudden rainstorm. The closest figures, two women, take shelter under their umbrellas, as a number of men use their hats or capes for protection from the rain, its dark diagonal streaks vertically intersecting the print. A single figure can be seen on the left trying to push his log raft down the river to safety. The innovative skill of the print is reflected both in the falling rain, created by making parallel lines in varying directions, and by the use of bokashi, a printing technique which required inking a wet woodblock by hand, creating depth with the ink gradations and seen here in both the dark blue of the waters under the bridge and the slightly darker blue band of the storm at the top. Ukiyo-e prints often depicted the theme of sudden gusts of wind or rain showers, showing nature's constant presence by its unpredictable effect upon human activity.
Hiroshige's aerial perspective, his diagonal horizon well above center, his use of negative space, devoid of figures or detail, and large areas of color influenced many Western artists. Whistler created a number of paintings like Nocturne: Blue and Gold - Old Battersea Bridge (1872) that depicted a bridge deploying Hiroshige's composition and reductive palette, leading to the development of Tonalism. The Impressionists and Post-Impressionists were also influenced by the Japanese artist as seen in van Gogh's Bridge in the Rain (after Hiroshige) (1887).
Woman At Her Bath
This iconic example of shin-hanga, or "new woodblock prints," depicts a nude woman at her daily bath, deep in thought, kneeling on the wet floor and wringing out a blue and white washcloth into a basin. Her body's flat plane of light color is softly, but precisely outlined against the yellow and pink partition behind her, where to the right, her robes are lying on a green floor.
Shin-hanga revived the traditional ukiyo-e collaborative process and also portrayed traditional ukiyo-e subjects, as seen in this bijin-ga print, yet at the same time the movement incorporated elements of Western art, as seen in the realistic depiction of a nude in naturalistic light with soft colors. The work also creates a feeling of individual mood and a compelling sense of privacy. The works of Utamaro, Hokusai, and Harunobu influenced Goyō when he created this work at the request of the publisher Watanabe Shōzaburō, who had coined the term shin-hanga. A perfectionist who supervised the production process for his prints and suffering from severe ill health, Goyō was to complete only fourteen prints before his premature death, though his work became viewed as setting critical standards for printing quality.
Color woodcut print - Library of Congress, Washington DC