Ukiyo-e: Japanese Pictures of the Floating World

  • What is Ukiyo-e?

    Since antiquity, Japanese art had found patrons in aristocracy, military, and religious authorities. With their social status, they were the only ones capable of appreciating art. One of these forms which flourished in the country from the 17th through the 19th centuries is “ukiyo-e.”

    In Japanese, these means “pictures of the floating world.” The term was derived from the fact that they depict a transient (floating) yet enjoyable world. Ukiyo-e consists of a specific class of woodblock print which was popular with the wealthy merchants in the Edo period.

    Common Themes

    Ukiyo-e prints were produced in massive numbers as a way of satisfying the middle-class. The most commonly used themes were beautiful women, kabuki actors and sumo wrestlers. It also included beautiful historical scenes and folktales, flora and fauna as well as erotica. Scenes from nature were considered a very important part of Asian culture. There was even a close study done on the different parts of plants and animals. The painting’s focus depended on the period. Until the 16th century, the lives of the common townspeople were never included. Luxury items for the samurais were the center of attention. Later on, inexpensive monochromatic paintings started showing off the people’s normal way of life.

    The beautiful women in the paintings were modeled after the courtesans and geisha at leisure. However, physical features were given less attention. Faces were stereotyped and bodies were tall, lanky and petite. This alluded to the popular trend at the time.

    Ukiyo-e Style

    The contemporary tradition in Japanese art is patronized by the upper class such as the use of subtle monochromatic ink brush strokes by the zenga brush. They present an unusual approach to graphic presentation when compared to European style. Later on, portraits of popular celebrities became a huge demand. People wanted to own the best ukiyo-e of the most popular entertainers of that era.

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