Ukiyo-e means ‘pictures of the floating world’ and became popular in the 17th century. They aren’t drawings or traditional paintings, they are woodblock prints. Three people were often involved in the process: the artist who designed the print, the woodcutter who craved the wood, and the painter who inked and pressed the blocks onto paper. The most famous ukiyo-e print is Great Wave Off Kanagawa by Hokusai. I was delighted that I could see the actual original and not a reproduction.
These prints of the 17th century were aimed at the merchant class, who were experiencing great growth due to the Edo period’s rising economy. Common themes were of travel and scenery, beautiful women, plants and animals, and famous actors and sumo wrestlers. The actor and sumo wrestlers pictures were interesting, in that they are basically ancient versions of today’s pop star posters and trading cards. A ukiyo-e depicting famous actors in a play is like today’s movie posters.
There were many different styles represented. Some artists were bold and colorful, some vague and monochromatic. Some of the details were amazing, especially the depiction of kimono patterns. Looking at Hokusai’s sketchbook, I was amazed at the level of detail he did. It reminded me of comic artist George Perez, who was famous for squeezing as much detail as he could into backgrounds and such.
These works are housed at museums all around the world; I feel very fortunate I was able to see such an eclectic and historical gathering all in one place.
|Ukiyo-e coffee at the museum cafe|