“An artist's concern is to capture beauty wherever he finds it.” - (Kazuo Ishiguro, An Artist of the Floating World)
It was the early Japanese literary writer, Ryo Asai, who profoundly wrote in his novel, “Ukiyo-e Monogatari” (Tales of the Floating World, 1660) the perfect sentiment that grapples the enigmatic essence of the floating world.
“Living only for the moment, turning our full attention to the pleasures of the moon, the snow, the cherry blossoms and the maple leaves; singing songs, drinking wine, diverting ourselves in just floating, floating; … refusing to be disheartened, like a gourd floating along with the river current: this is what we call the floating world…”
The term, “Ukiyo-e,” pictures of the floating world, therefore, arose from the early Buddhist expression to connote the transient existence of sorrows burrowed in an ephemeral reality. This art of woodblock printing had become the sophisticated channel for interpreting worlds of pleasures, entertainment and universal materialism associated with beautiful women, landscapes, the Kabuki theatre, warriors—fine products of a prosperous society created by the thriving Tokugawa shogunate of the Edo period.
Mitsubishi Ichigokan Museum in Tokyo celebrated the vitality of this artistic phenomenon in “Ukiyo-e: Floating World from the Saito Collection,” through three phases. Fumio Saito, Director of the Kawasaki Isago no Sato Museum, boasted more than 500 woodblock prints that captured the elegant history of this glorious art.
Phase I of the exhibition that ran from June 22 to July 15 centered on “Ukiyo-e”s Golden Age: Edo Illustrated.” Here, we witnessed the current of early printmaking in Japan from the 17th century, an era that devoured pleasure districts and theatrical art. The exhibit revealed an array of notable prints by painter and printmaker, Moronobu Hishikawa, who was greatly known for his monochrome book illustrations from 1672. Other prominent artists displayed in this phase, such as Harunobu Suzuki, depicted scenes of legendary tales; Shunshô Katsukawa, introduced the energetic forms of “yakusha-e,” pictures of Kabuki actors; and was immensely admired for his fine-flowing “bijin-ga” (art of beautiful women); Utamaro Kitagawa, probably one of Ukiyo-e’s most celebrated masters, manifested exquisite female beauty in his prints. Other featured artists in this period were Toyokuni Utagawa I, Sharaku Toshusai, and others.
Phase 2 of the exhibition, with the theme “Hokusai, Hiroshige: The Rise of Tourism,” ran from July 17 to August 11. Towards the 1830s during the Tenpo era, Ukiyo-e art’s concentration on actors, brothels, and other urban pleasures diverted around the appreciation of the landscapes, which was simultaneously, a response to the prevalent travel boom in Japan at that time. Hokusai Katsushika’s “The Hollow of the Great Wave off Kanagawa,” remains as one of the most famous living masterpieces in print art. The gigantic clawlike wave, like a fierce dragon, thunders down upon boats on the rolling sea, yet camouflages the threatening presence with the tiny image of Mt. Fuji’s tranquility in the background. Also, an unforgettable print in this phase was Hiroshige Utagawa I’s “Nihonbashi Bridge, Morning View, from the series Fifty-three Stations,” depicting the daimyo’s (lord) procession crossing the Nihonbashi Bridge. Other superb works in this phase that represented the technical advancements of perspective rendering and color shading came from legendary Toyokuni Utagawa III, Kuniyoshi Utagawa, and others.
Finally, Phase 3 of the exhibition (August 13 to September 8) scrutinized the gentle “Transition from Edo to Tokyo; A Journalistic, Nostalgic Eye.” Towards the closing of the Edo period, Japanese artists began to express visual interest in Western art and prints displaying beautiful women in various scenes. Trends in fashion and style evolved under the influence of Impressionism. Manifested through journalism, Ukiyo-e focused on scenes of Japan opening to the West. Kiyochika Kobayashi introduced the light technique in his “light series.” Yōshū Chikanobu, the elegant Ukiyo-e artist of the Meiji era, garnered fame through his expressions in women’s fashion (particularly, the hairstyle), and the Kabuki productions.
Viewing the precious prints on display aroused one’s admiration for the tedious Ukiyo-e printmaking process that involved the careful collaboration of the designer, engraver, printer, and the publisher. The publisher handled printmaking as a business venture, and often dictated the “sellable” theme to the artist. Considering the meticulous work exerted on sketching the design on paper, transferring it to a thin, transparent sheet, adhered on a block of wood, tracing the lines of the design and carving intricately with a chisel to raise the design in a relief, then applying ink on the woodblock, rubbing across the block repeatedly with a round pad, “baren,” until the right evenness of the ink is achieved, and finally, overlapping the drawing paper on the block to press the print, this elaborate method has been replaced by automated machinery in the later years.
It is not only the fine lines, curves and color subtlety that makes every Ukiyo-e print a magical sight to absorb, but also, the genuine depiction of the themes of daily life from Edo to Meiji days that provokes curious interest and deep inspiration for this captivating art.
Although the prints in the floating world inevitably saw their decline in the later years due to the flourish of new technology in color prints and photography, adaptations in contemporary printmaking revived this splendid art form.
Today, the existing Japanese subculture lurks around bold and interpretative manga and comic art. Though not quite surpassing the sublime delicacy and refined expressions of Hokusai or Hiroshige, it clearly absorbs the society’s rustic desires for ardent pleasures in daily life, uninhibited aspirations, and impulsive ambitions…all, in a restless, carefree floating world.
All images by Kawasaki Isago no Sato Museum, courtesy of Mitsubishi Ichigokan Museum.