Ukyo-e, the prints of the floating world
Van Gogh, Monet and the Impressionists all were influenced and attracted by Japanese art. So far removed from Western culture, it offered a very different look from the academic habits, so criticized by these young Parisian painters.
What, exactly, had come to the West?
Doors and ports closed
The Japanese did not allow any trade except with China; the ports were closed. In the second half of the nineteenth century, however, they decided to open communications to the Americas and Europe.
They export goods, objects and art that immediately become collectible, creating the phenomenon of "Japonism".
Japanese prints are widespread for art which, unlike Western reality, are the main form of art spread throughout the nation.
In Japan, in fact, artists dedicate themselves to Ukyo-e prints (which means floating world) with coded forms and techniques that we reduce and simplify here.
In Japan, very few could afford original paintings in unique pieces, so a printing technique was developed using blocks of cherry wood.
These prints, precisely because they were produced in numerous copies, were within everyone's reach.
Ukyo-e were produced with the following process:
1 - the artist creates the original drawing in ink
2 - an assistant (called hikkō) then creates a trace of the original drawing (a kind of copy)
3 - a craftsman glues this design face down on a block of wood, hollowing out the parts where the paper was white leaving the design in relief
4 - the block is inked and printed, producing copies practically identical to the original drawing
5 - these prints with only the outline drawing are, in turn, glued face down on wooden blocks and the areas that must be of a particular color are left in relief.
6 - for each color a block of wood is made
7 - the wooden blocks were inked in their respective colors, which are subsequently imprinted one after the other on the paper with the utmost precision.
The final print carries the impression of each of the blocks, some printed more than once to give depth to the color.
This is how the prints are made which, looking at them, are striking for the exact coincidence of the various colors. Impressive accuracy.
The main themes of ukyo-e
The main artists are Utagawa Hiroshighe, Katsushicha Hokusai and Kitagawa Utamaro which we will talk about in the next posts.
Considering that in the land of the rising sun there is not Christianity but Buddhism, devotional painting is scarce, so no Madonnas, Annunciations, etc.
Artists devote themselves to views "One Hundred Views of Edo's Famous Places", "Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji", to the illustration of poems and literature "One hundred poems for one hundred poets in illustrated stories of the nurse", to portraits of theater actors, sumo wrestlers, courtesans and other rigorously codified types of subjects.
The origins of ukyo-e are found in the urbanization that developed in the 16th century, creating a class of merchants and artisans who began to write and paint the "ehon" (picture books) or novels such as the "Story of Ise" and the ukyo-e come used as illustrations for these books.
Later they become independent and printed on a single sheet in various formats from postcard to poster.
This particular form of art diffusion has had the advantage of spreading the images of Japanese artists all over the world ... floating.
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