Deep Dives: the uniqueness of Ukiyo-e art

Tiyanna Mistry explores the Japanese Ukiyo-e art movement

Tiyanna Mistry
2nd March 2021
The Great Wave off Kanagawa, Katsushika Hokusai Via Wikipedia
We’ve all heard of the artistry and influence of impressionism, realism, and renaissance art movements. These are all examples of brilliant artistic movements, but what about Eastern artistic movements that are often overlooked? The greatness of Eastern art practices is one to behold. More specifically the Japanese artistic movement of Ukiyo-e.

Ukiyo-e is a Japanese art genre that flourished during the Edo period (1603 – 1868) and whilst you may not have heard of it; you have certainly seen examples and adaptations of it. The term, Ukiyo-e, comprises of several elements: uki (floating), yo (world) and e (pictures), essentially translating to ‘picture[s] of the floating world’. The artwork often features scenes of ‘the floating world’ such as depictions of history and folklore with warriors, landscapes, street performers and anything considered to be beautiful in the natural wonders in Japan. These art pieces were created to show off the wonder and amazement that artists saw in Japan to everyone.

Cooling on Riverside, Kiyonaga
Via Wikipedia

Historically, Ukiyo was a Buddhist term used to express the transience of human life. During the Edo period, however, the term came to refer to the hedonistic human pleasures in life with the artwork typically depicting the sensory pleasures of urban life. In its modern usage, however, the term ukiyo is interpreted to mean a state of being, involving living in the moment and being detached from the trivialities of life. Ukiyo-e artists strived to and continue to use this style of artistry to capture the raw attitudes and emotions of things witnessed in their everyday lives to preserve their memories; time would change but their memories would remain intact.

Ukiyo-e style involves painting and printmaking in the form of multicoloured woodblock printing. The creative process is precise and captivating – it often involves three or four people who put in time and effort to create such mesmerizing images. One person draws the image, another carves it into the woodblock, the third paints the image onto a woodblock and presses it on to paper and the final person, the publisher, finances and promotes the work, therefore dividing the production of the images between the artists. Much of this printing was done by hand, allowing for precise graduation of colours which would be difficult to achieve via machine.

The Great Wave off Kanagawa, Katsushika Hokusai
Via Wikipedia

There are many great pieces of art that have emerged from the Ukiyo-e art movement. The Great Wave off Kanagawa is arguably one of the most memorable. It was created by Katsushika Hokusai and features Mount Fuji as a symbol of immortality, which is overshadowed by a great wave, representing nature and its powers. Hokusai’s Great Wave has inspired contemporary art and is one of the most reproduced and most instantly recognized pieces of art in the world. Artists including Vincent Van Gogh, Claude Monet and Franz Marc were heavily influenced by Hokusai’s ukiyo-e artwork; this is testament to Ukiyo-e influence on western art.

Bridge in the Rain (after Hiroshige), Vincent van Gogh
Via Wikipedia

The Ukiyo-e artwork remains a relevant and influential force; its impact is profound, with various modernised adaptations being seen everywhere. Western art methods have combined with the original wood blocking methods to produce new pieces that still hold some semblance of the original Ukiyo-e style yet enhance the style, taking on a modernised feel. Safe to say the Ukiyo-e artistic movement has stood the test of time, with its artwork widely appreciated in the minds of artists and creatives alike.

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