Materials & Techniques

Ukiyo-e

Ukiyo-e "pictures of the floating world," began as painting but became a particular focus of wood block printing in the Edo period (BCE 1603/1615-1868). The term ukiyo, "floating world," was originally a Buddhist concept referring to impermanence, but came to be associated with the life of urban pleasure districts, especially in Edo (now Tokyo). Subjects of ukiyo-e included courtesans, actors, kabuki, and puppet theater plays. Such prints were often tied to the worlds of fashion and marketing. The beauties and actors in prints would at times be shown in fabrics that were for sale; depicted with rich color and texture, such prints were called nishiki-e or brocade prints, and became one of the many reasons the Tokugawa shogunate attempted to place restrictions on the production of prints.

The lavish nature of some prints was seen to contravene sumptuary laws put in place to maintain social order and keep merchants from flaunting their wealth. Another impetus for restriction was the subject matter, particularly of courtesans and kabuki actors, which were seen as detrimental to the morals of society, and there was an attempt to forbid the production of new prints. The shogunate failed to impose the various decrees designed to regulate and control the production of prints; however, by the late 1810s, ukiyo-e began to decline in popularity until the repertoire of the genre was refreshed by landscapes and historical prints.

Ukiyo-e were produced through the collaboration of artists, carvers, printers, and publishers. An artist sketched a work, which a carver then pasted to a block of wood to carve the design. Other blocks were carved for each color, with special markings to assure they were lined up properly on the paper when the print was made. The printer applied the color; and the publisher, who often sold books as well as prints, was responsible for the distribution of the works. One of the attempts made by the shogunate to curb the lavishness of the prints was to limit the number of blocks used in their production, which could be as many as twenty for polychrome prints. However, the artisans simply adapted their methods to use a single block for multiple colors.

Drawn from

  • Label text, "East Meets West," 2005.

  • Meech, Julia and Jane Oliver, eds. Designed for pleasure : the world of Edo Japan in prints and paintings, 1680-1860. New York: Asia Society and Japanese Art Society of America; Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2008.

  • Forrer, Matthi & Amy Reigle Stephens, "Japan: Prints and Books, historical development," Grove Art Online, Oxford Art Online, published 2003.

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