There are many unique aspects of Japanese art and culture. Haven’t you ever wondered about those beautiful traditional artworks that you see hanging on the walls of many Japanese restaurants or in traditional Japanese homes that you see in the movies? Those artworks are called Ukiyo-e.
Ukiyo-e, which roughly translates to “pictures of the floating world”, is a style of painting and printmaking, which became quite popular in Japan in the 18th and 19th centuries.
The method of printing for this artform is deceptively simple. Blocks of wood were carved from an original drawing, and used to make near exact copies. Different blocks were used for each color, and could be printed repeatedly to create bold, bright images.
The original purpose of making ukiyo-e was to give people who could not afford real paintings a chance to own a piece of art. Because of this the subjects were usually vibrant city characters: popular actors, beautiful courtesans or bulky sumo wrestlers.
However, even though a majority of the pieces made revolved around the said subjects, many of the most famous ukiyo-e images are landscapes, like Hokusai’s enduring ‘Great Wave at Kanagawa’.
The Utagawa school dominated ukiyo-e and was acknowledged as the best training ground for ukiyo-e artists. In fact, most of the period’s great artists either studied there or learnt from someone who did.
Although they were discouraged, many sexually explicit woodblock prints, called shung (springtime pictures) were also made in this era. The punishments for creating these prints were strict, but even famous artists got away with making some shunga.