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Monday, July 9, 2012

A Historical Look At Ukiyo-e

As many people know - and I was not among them until recently - the work 'ukiyo-e' (see image above) translates to 'pictures of the floating world'. Obviously, right? Like what the heck does that mean? The word 'e' actually means 'picture' or 'image'.

The concept of ukiyo translates into meaning the world is like a river. It looks the same, but it is constantly moving, and the actual water you saw moments ago is long since flowed away. That's my five-yen version of it, anyway. 

However, from what I understood, the word ukiyo was a term originally used by Buddhist monks who saw the ever changing river as a metaphor to lament the ephemeral nature of the sad and sorry world in which we people live in. Too much change, perhaps, scared people. There were also a lot of civil wars going on that tended to make people sad.

And that's the way it was for a long time... until aesthetes (someone who has a special appreciation of the arts and beauty) and bon vivants (French for a people who live well upon the finer things in life) came along and said - 'Hey, old monks - chillax' or something like that. Of course, these would be Japanese bon vivants, as Japan was still a closed society to the rest of the world, with few travelers or tradesmen ever reaching her shores.

Less basically than 'chillax' definition, the aesthetes and Japanese bon vivants looked at the Buddhist term ukiyo and noted that since life is as fleeting as a dream, one should live in the now like there is no tomorrow. You know... there is no past, the future hasn't happened yet and all you really have is the present so waste it not - that whole zen aspect of Buddhism. 

My copy of Hiroshige's #40 of the 53 Stages Of The Tokkaido series.
That means people should appreciate the world. It means you should look at a leaf turning red in the Fall, or watch cherry blossoms bloom in the Spring or make love in free-spirited way (not just functional). It meant one could drink sake, go see a hooker or have a good time in the entertainment districts.

Hmmm... I think I like this version of ukiyo far better than the original definition used by the Buddhist monks. And the people of the 17th, 18th and 19th century Japan did too, which is perhaps why ordinary people suddenly wanted shinning examples of artwork in their homes - and all the better if it contained scenes showing off the 'modern' term of ukiyo-e... the floating world... the fleeting beauty of the world... captured in time via art.


As well... people who venture to festivals, and would seek a souvenir - what better than a postcard like an ukyo-e that they could keep and show to their friends when they got back home. 

That all sounds correct.

But the popularity of the ukiyo-e also has something to do with the middle class - the Merchant class - getting rich during this era, as they set up their own shops around a castle of a Lord. These castle towns became areas of commerce. People - not just the rich samurai now had money, and wanted to spend it. They wanted art like the samurai. But they didn't just want the beauty, they wanted the art showing people and places and things they recognized - hence the hookers, sumo wrestlers and kabuki play actors.

The ukiyo-e became the Tiger Beat of its generation. 
Part of a kabuki triptych from my collection.

April 1969 cover featuring Bobby Sherman.

Along with ukiyo-e artwork capturing likenesses of famous kabuki actors - and I will have more on their role in the formation of the ukiyo-e trade in a later blog - other popular topics included drawings of popular courtesans, sumo wrestlers (sports figures of the day), famous scenes from epic tales, scenes from around Japan that the average person would never see, but at least now they had an inkling of what it looked like.

As such, the ukiyo-e was considered as viable an art form as the comic book of today - that is to say, not held in very high regard by the Japanese of the 17th, 18th and 19th century all the way up to the early 20th century. It was considered cheap, because the works could be purchased cheaply, but mostly because the common man could own one.

Now... I should state that the original painting of an ukiyo-e scene was an expensive piece of work even back then - and the rich often commissioned ukiyo-e art for personal consumption. The artist would then turn around and sell a new sketch of it to a publisher who would mass produce it. It was only by mass production, that the over all cost per unit could be cheap enough for classes other than the rich to afford.

So... if the icky merchant class of Japan could purchase ukiyo-e (and the merchant class was looked down upon with some level of disdain back then) just how much did a single ukiyo-e sheet (not a book) cost back then?

"During the Edo period, a woodblock print was the same price as a bowl of noodles. He advised me not to be expensive, not to be elitist. He said it's for the public because it's printed art. Make it accessible to the world." 
-Tokuriki Tomikichiro probably saying his publisher wanted it done cheap.

Oh! The things I make myself research!

A bowl of noodles back in the 1800s of Japan would cost about 16 mon.

What the hell is a mon worth? More importantly, what was a mon worth relative to a US dollar back in the 1800s?

Aarrrgh! Research!

Let's see... 114 mon = 1 English pound (£) = US $1.50.

Therefore 16 mon = £0.14 = US $0.21. I hope that is correct. Regardless, it's not that expensive.

Money was made from the initial sale of ukiyo-e prints if many copies were sold - a necessity, because the process to create an ukiyo-e is not a simple process.

Ukiyo-e are wood block prints, usually printed onto cherry wood - at least that was my understanding.

After an artist painted an original painting, the ukiyo-e was made by an engraver carving the artwork onto blocks of cherry wood - one block for one color. The carver cuts away the wood he doesn't want from the block to expose a raised relief of the art he or she wants the printer to pick up.

Again... that means carving one entire block for one color. That sounds quite labor intensive. 

These blocks were then taken by a printer and made into either a single broadsheet or combined into a book format as a collection by a publisher. It's just that easy see?



That was sarcasm, by the way. Now imagine this coloring and printing done hundreds of times or more! That's labor intensive. Consider that the paper could shift while pressing the colors on, or the paper could have been misplaced on the block to start, or simply adding too much ink or too little ink, and the print could be ruined. It's one of the reasons why each ukiyo-e print can be considered an individual work of art - at least in the days before printing presses took over. 

The publisher would then pay chump change to street pedlars to sell the prints.

That's a lot of work, lots or people involved, and a lot of time and supplies involved. Successful publishers sought out the best artists they could find (often for cheap), but these publishers also often came up with the ideas on what they wanted drawn. Give the people what they want to get higher sales.

It must have worked, because many publishers had long careers in the business, as did many artists who even set up schools of art for their followers.


Artists, however, were at the lower end of the social scale in Japan, and ukiyo-e artists were at the bottom rung of that - as such, often very little is known about artists of this great Japanese art form. Who cares about the artist?   

And still, the ukiyo-e sold very well... but despite the proliferation of the ukiyo-e in Japan, it still wasn't respected.

In fact... if it wasn't for the foreigners becoming interested in the art form of the ukiyo-e, Japan may never have come to appreciate the beauty and value of this style of art.

After 1868 when Japan opened its doors and allowed foreigners in and its populace out,Japan began trading more and more of its goods, like its pottery that was in high demand in Europe.

To pack the pottery in crates, Japanese businessmen needed a cushion, and since Sealed Air had not yet invented Bubble Wrap yet, they used the old standby of paper balled up and placed in the crates. The most readily available paper was, of course, ukiyo-e prints.

There is a well known example of sheets of ukiyo-e from the Hokusai Manga (Hokusai comics) that was crumpled up and used that was used. That artwork actually attracted the attention of some famous artists like Degas (he learned the use of space), Van Gough, Gauguin, and Monet.

Van Gough was so impressed, that he later created copies of Hiroshige's works: Bridge In The Rain and Flowering Plum Tree.

Hiroshige (l) and Van Gough (r): Bridge In The Rain.

Hiroshige (l) and Van Gough (r): Flowering Plum Tree.

Monet was so impressed with the Japanese art, that he had an entire room covered in ukiyo-e artwork.

Claude Monet's ukiyo-e collection.
And, when the popular art world stands up and takes notice, so too do the art patrons who saw the Japanese ukiyo-e as something exotic and mysterious and wanted more.

Sorry Japan, but that is why the greatest collections of ukiyo-e artwork are actually in the hands of foreign collectors and why the Japanese are playing catch-up.

I had previously noted how famed U.S. architect Frank Lloyd Wright became one of the greatest collectors of Japanese ukiyo-e and not only purchased art for himself, but was also involved in bringing over to America huge lots of artwork that he could sell to other collectors.

The foreign influence on ukiyo-e, however does not start and stop with its commercialization. Artists like Hokusai learned western techniques of perspective and shading after studying copperplate prints from Holland.

I've previously mentioned that the deep red and rich purple colors were only available in Japan after it opened its borders - and it's also why I know that any ukiyo-e with those colors is a newer, non-Edo jidai (Edo era) print, and why I tend to shy away from those.

Ukiyo-e artists also borrowed the Prussian Blue color - a favorite of ukiyo-e artists - borrowed from the west.

I own over 20 ukiyo-e art prints - certainly not anything but a small collection, but when I talked to many Japanese people, not only were they impressed that a foreigner would like their old art so much, but they admitted they did not have an ukiyo-e print themselves.

Well, they did... but they were the mass printed copies for tourists made a few years ago or, if I recall correctly, were part of a newspaper giveaway of some high-quality art printed on thick stock paper that while would never actually be confused as a true, original ukiyo-e print, did at least educate the newspaper readers on its art history. Although, with anything historic that is a giveaway, the only people who want the giveaway are already into the topic.

I tried to determine how much money an artist might earn for his art original or for copying purposes by a publisher. As well, I also wanted to know what  a carver or a printer might earn, but I could not find that information. If anyone has such information, and would care to share, I would be most grateful. 

By Andrew Joseph

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