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Recounting Ukiyo-e Art’s Colorful History

Even up to this day of modern Japan, there are many art enthusiasts who never tire adoring the beauty of Ukiyo-e. You can still see houses adorned and decorated with Ukiyo-e paintings and home décors. This is because those who knew of its legendary beginnings also knew how valuable Ukiyo-e art pieces are.

The birth of a masterpiece

The history of ukiyo-e art can be traced back to the Edo Period, also known as the Tokugawa Period, from 1615-1868. This was at a time when Edo (now Tokyo) was the center of Japanese metropolitan life and where the seat of power was being enjoyed by the ruling shoguns. This period is characterized by many historians as a hundred years of peace and solitude. This was also when Japan was isolated from the rest of the world, the reason why the art flourished without any influence from other civilizations.

As the Tokugawa shoguns held the reins of power, the wealthy merchants were stripped off of their high position in the social hierarchy. Thus, they began to resort to art and culture since these were the only aspects of community life where they had an equal playing field with the elite upper classes such as the artisans, famers, and warriors.

Voice of the townspeople

What made Ukiyo-e distinct from all other forms of art that flourished in Japan was the fact that it was a collaboration between and among the artists, publishers, and merchants of Edo. Truly, it was Ukiyo-e that gave these people a reputable cultural status outside the sophisticated court life.

Translated into English, Ukiyo-e means "pictures of the floating world". The phrase “floating world” was used to describe the 17thcentury lifestyle in Edo when Ukiyo-e started to flourish. The lifestyle then was marked with desire for lavish entertainment in the form of teahouses, kabuki theatres, geishas of the brothels, and courtesans. No wonder why the Ukiyo-e paints and prints depict images of beautiful women in kimono, sumo wrestlers, kabuki performers, and scenes of court life. Sharaku and Utamaro’s art were mostly about this hedonistic lifestyle.

However, there were also many Ukiyo-e art pieces that portray every day folk life, the folk tales of the time, as well as beautiful sceneries, plants, and animals. Among the notable Ukiyo-e artists renowned for their prowess in the field of landscape painting were Hokusai and Hiroshige.

Woodblock prints

Ukiyo-e also makes use of woodblock as medium. Four creative people work hand in hand to produce these majestic pieces. They are: the publisher who acts as marketer of the finished woodblock prints; the artist who draws the images on paper; the carver who transfers these designs into the woodblock; and finally, the printer who applies pigments to the woodblock and prints the different hues to the handmade paper. The prints can be monochromatic or colorful.

The decline of the “Floating World”

As the Meiji Restoration of 1868 ushered in a new era from Japan, the popularity of Ukiyo-e art began to fade. The changes of the times brought with it a wave of Western and other external influences in Japanese lifestyle as well as its art and culture. And when Hiroshige and Hokusai died, the fate of this 16th century art was sealed as well. Along with the artists’ death was the demise of this art that flourished for a 100 years.