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Japanese woodcut prints, is also called “Ukiyo-e” wich literally means 'pictures of the floating world'. Ukiyo-e is the collective name for this visual world of the period.

The 'floating world' referred to the licensed brothel and theatre districts of Japan's major cities during the Edo period (1615 – 1868). Those districts was dominated by restaurants, tea houses, kabuki theaters and brothels, and inhabited by prostitutes and Kabuki actors (Kabuki is a traditional Japanese form of theatre) These were the playgrounds of the newly wealthy merchant class, and it was from here that most of the ukiyo-e motifs were taken during the golden age of the woodcut.

Despite their low status in the strict social hierarchy of the time, actors and courtesans became the style icons of their day, and their fashions spread to the general population via inexpensive woodblock prints.

These colourful woodblock prints, depicted scenes from everyday Japan but also in contrast to portrayals of everday life, there were the ukiyo-e depictions of heroism and myth. Japan has a long and rich tradition of folklore and storytelling, and traditional tales of heroes and villains, monsters and demons provided dramatic and popular subjects for woodblock prints.

The prints were produced in their many thousands, and hugely popular during the Edo period (1615 – 1868). The woodcuts can also be seen as a forerunner to a visual, popular mass culture, which anticipates both the poster and the series.

While only the wealthy could afford paintings by the artists of the day, ukiyo-e prints were enjoyed by a wide audience because they could be produced quite cheaply and in large numbers.

The ukiyo-e style was developed in 1765 when new technology made it possible to produce single-sheet prints in a whole range of colors, and ukiyo-e remained popular until the closing decades of the Meiji period (1868 – 1912).

Each print required the collaboration of four experts: the designer, the engraver, the printer, and the publisher. A print was usually conceived and issued as a commercial venture by the publisher, who was often also a bookseller.

There were a wide range of common ukiyo-e themes, including 'beauties' and actors, landscapes, heroic and folk tales, and erotica. It features the great masters of the genre such as Suzuki Harunobu (1725 – 70), Utagawa Hiroshige (1797 – 1858), Keisai Eisen (1790-1848), Katsushika Hokusai (1760 – 1849) Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1798-1861),  Utagawa Kunisada (1786 – 1864),Toyohara Kunichika (1835–1900), Yōshū Chikanobu (1838-1912), and many more.

Perhaps the most iconic of all ukiyo-e prints is Hokusai's ”Great Wave off the Coast of Kanagawa”.

It is between the years 1603 and 1868 that the main history of the woodcut takes place, during the Edo period or more precisely the Tokugawa period, the family name of the shoguns, who ruled the Japanese kingdom through their county lords.

The emperor and the court state resided in Kyoto, but without political power, while Edo, the old name of Tokyo, developed into a million city.

After Admiral Perry broke through Japan's isolation in 1854, the current of Japanese trade flowed west again, bearing with it the colored woodcuts of Hokusai, Hiroshige, and their contemporaries. Some of the most avid collectors of these prints were the French Impressionists who found in them new ways to create their own art.

During a stay in Holland, Claude Monet discovered that some of his goods were packaged in the most amazing wrapping papers with scenes from everyday life in Japan. He went back to the store and bought bundles of the paper itself. It was his discovery of the Japanese woodcut. Claude Monet designed parts of his garden in Giverny according to the Japanese model. For example Monet built a wooden bridge over a water lily pond, which he depicted on many occasions. His focus on individual objects in the paintings, such as the bridge and water lilies, shows his influence from Japanese woodcuts, of which he was also a great collector. He also planted a variety of Japanese plants to make the garden feel more exotic.

In the mid-1850s, the French artist Félix Bracquemond came across pages from the picture book Hokusai Manga also used as wrapping paper to protect porcelain.

Baudelaire wrote in a letter in 1861, "A while ago I received a package of Japanese. I have divided them among my friends ..."

Paul Gauguin tried to created Japanese woodcuts, but mainly in black and white.

Several of Van Gogh's paintings imitate ukiyo-e, both in style and motif. The painting ”La Courtisane” from 1887 is based on a ukiyo-e by Keisai Eisen that Van Gogh found on the cover of the Paris Illustré 1886 magazine.

In addition to Monet, van Gogh, Gauguin, the "Ukiyo-e" style inspired some of our greatest European artists, for instance Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, Édouard Manet, Claude Monet, Edgar Degas, Auguste Renoir, Camille Pissarro, Alphonse Mucha, Gustav Klimt, Pierre Bonnard.

With its windling lines, patterned surfaces, the flat surface and contrasting negative shapes

“Ukiyo-e” served as one of several starting points for the development of both art nouveau and cubism. The artists were influenced by the lack of perspectives and shadows, the powerful patterns and the strong colors.

Another thing that influenced European visual art was the compositional freedom that it meant to place the subject outside the center of the image, to focus on details and stillness instead of large landscapes and events, and the choice of square or portrait images.

This trend, "Japonism," came to the Nordic countries around the end of the 1870s. Artists that were clearly influenced were, among others, Helene Schjerfbeck, Edvard Munch, Carl Larsson, Vilhelm Hammershøi, Bruno Liljefors, and Gallen-Kallela.

Read more about the Japanese artists under each artist's page.

Japanese Ukiyo-e Artists info: Om


Utagawa Kunisada (1786-1865): got his breakthrough as a teenager and became the foremost and most esteemed artist of his time.



Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1798-1861): Many consider Kuniyoshi to be one of the most interesting artists of this period, mainly because of his powerful depictions of samurai. He was called "Kuniyoshi of the Warrior Prints".



Ando Hiroshige (1797-1858), is one of the most important Japanese artists ever; his work affected not only future generations of Japanese artists, but also many great Western artists.



Yōshū Chikanobu was a leading artist during the Meiji period (1868-1912), at the same time he was a samurai and belonged to the elite unit of Shogitai, and he fought in the Civil War 1867-1868.



Hokusai is best known as author of the woodblock print series Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji which includes the internationally iconic print; “The Great Wave off Kanagawa”.



Whereas Kunisada, as the head of the Utagawa School, came to specialize in kabuki prints, and Kuniyoshi in warriors, Eisen's area of expertise was said to be prints of beautiful women (bijin).

Japanese Ukiyo-e Artists info: Produkter
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