Awe-inspiring nature, beautiful women, erotic scenes, fierce warriors, famous actors, and dramatic folklore … just some of the subjects that make up the imagery of the lavish ‘floating world’ (ukiyo) of Edo-period Japan (1615-1865). A growing merchant class enjoyed an increasingly decadent life-style, entertained by the drama and violence of the kabuki theatre and its lineage of famous actors. Just as revered, yet slightly more exclusive were the beautiful courtesans and geishas of the Yoshiwara pleasure district in the central city of Edo (now Tokyo). A boom in ‘images of the floating world’ (ukiyo-e) depicting these two main themes came when woodblock printing allowed them to be mass-produced for the public and sold for the price of a bowl of soba noodles.
Earlier this week, I made my way through the London drizzle and the half-term crowds to the British Museum to see one room, and one display case in particular. The Japanese galleries have a small display of ukiyo-e prints, which rotates through the British Museum's collection of images. Most people would easily be able to identify the most famous of these type of prints: Hokusai's 'Under the Wave, off Kanagawa'. This is certainly one of the highlights of the British Museum's collection (although not currently on display), but their collection also includes images from masters like Utamaro, Hiroshige, and Kuniyoshi.
I first became interested in ukiyo-e after seeing the Royal Academy's exhibition of Utagawa Kuniyoshi's work in 2009. I was struck by his use of colour and line, dynamic compositions, and the way that these elements heighten the drama of his images. Like many ukiyo-e artists, Kuniyoshi's subjects cover a wide range of popular themes, from legendary warriors to satirical images of animals enacting scenes from everyday life in the 'floating world' of Edo.
One of my favourite ukiyo-e images is Kuniyoshi's triptych 'Takiyasha the Witch and the Skeleton Spectre', and I was delighted to see a copy on display in the Japanese gallery at the V&A. This startling macabre image portrays a scene from Japanese legend. After the death of her traiterous father, the beautiful Princess Takiyasha conjures up an army of skeletons (which Kuniyoshi has chosen to depict as one enormous skeleton in order to unify the triptych), in an attempt to defend her father's ruined castle from the hero warrior Mitsukuni. The artist may have used imported Dutch medical or artistic texts as reference for the anatomically correct skeleton (Clark, p.74).
Although I was influenced by Japanese woodblock images, I didn't do very much academic research into the subject until I was working on my masters in Library Science. One the elective modules on City University's course was Information Domains, and our coursework was to create a subject guide for a topic of our choice. I took this opportunity to delve more deeply into an area of art that I find fascinating, but is not necessarily covered in detail in many UK art and design, or art history courses. The introductory paragraph above is the one I wrote for this subject guide.
My favourite genre of ukiyo-e images are the large series of landscapes created by the likes of Hokusai and Hiroshige. The latter's 'One Hundred Famous Views of Edo' is a masterpiece of colour, composition, and mood. One of my favourite images from this series is 'Kitsunebi on New Year's Night under the Enoki tree near Ōji'.
Kitsunebi or foxfire (a phenomenon similar to will-o'-the-wisps in Western folklore) is linked to foxes (kitsune) in Japanese folklore. In this image by Hiroshige, the magical foxes exhaling balls of flame have gathered under an enoki tree before proceeding to the Ōji Inari Shrine, where they will receive instructions from the rice diety Inari for the new year. 'The peasants of the region claimed to be able to forecast the harvest prospects from the number of magic foxes, and from the form taken by their ghostly "lights",' (Hiroshige et al, p.266). As you can probably tell, this beautiful image has been a great influence on my recent prints.
Where to find ukiyo-e online
Books about ukiyo-e
Lane, R. (1978) Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Calza, G.C. (ed.) (2005) London: Phaidon Press.
Clark, T. and Utagawa, K. (2009) Kuniyoshi : from the Arthur R. Miller Collection. London : Royal Academy of Arts.
Hiroshige A, Trede, M. and Bichler, L. (2010) Hiroshige : One hundred famous views of Edo. Köln : Taschen.