What is ukiyo-e art?

Ukiyo-e were colourful woodblock Japanese prints depicting scenes from ordinary life in Japan that were produced in the thousands throughout the Edo era (1615-1868).

The term "ukiyo-e" means "images of the floating world" in Japanese. During the Edo era in Japan, the areas of permitted brothels and theatres were known as the "floating world." Prostitutes and Kabuki players (Kabuki is a classic style of Japanese theatre) frequented these areas, which served as recreation spots for the increasingly prosperous merchant elite. Actors and courtesans, who were at the bottom of the social ladder at the time, became the style symbols of the day, and their fashionable looks were popularised by means of cheap woodblock prints.

Originally introduced in 1765, the ukiyo-e aesthetic flourished until the Meiji era's last decades (1868 – 1912). Although paintings by contemporary artists were only accessible to the affluent, ukiyo-e prints were widely popular due to their low cost and high production volume.

Over 25,000 prints, in addition to paintings, sketches, and books on the subject, make up our extensive Japanese woodblock print collections, which focus on a broad variety of ukiyo-e staples such "beauties," or fictional characters, landscapes, heroic and folk stories, and eroticism. Suzuki Harunobu (1725–70), Utagawa Hiroshige (1797–1858), Katsushika Hokusai (1760–1849), and Utagawa Kunisada (1697–1749), to name a few, all make appearances (1786 – 1864).

Hokusai's Great Wave from off Coast of Kanagawa is often regarded as the most recognisable example of ukiyo-e art. The poster, which is a part of the 36 Views of Mount Fuji series, depicts Mount Fuji dreamily in the distance, appearing framed by a massive arching wave in the front that threatens to swallow the two boats below. Since the Edo era had been relatively peaceful and had seen the construction of an advanced road network, Japan had developed a strong tradition of leisurely vacationing. The result was a surge in demand for souvenir prints of well-known scenic areas. It's also worth noting that the introduction of Western prints and drawings stimulated enthusiasm in drawing from life by presenting new ways of seeing the world.

Woodblock print by Katsushika Hokusai, South Wind, Clear Dawn, from the series Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji, published in Japan about 1831. Victoria & Albert Museum, London, collection no. E.4813-1916

Ukiyo-e prints featured heroic figures and legendary stories, providing a stark contrast to the everyday scenes shown in other genres. Folklore and storytelling have a long and storied history in Japan, and dramatic and popular topics for woodblock prints were often drawn from ancient stories of both heroes and villains, dragons and demons.

Japanese Fan Art Prints 

Fans, ubiquitous summertime accessory, were also a typical print medium. Although fan prints were less likely to have survived since they were printed on paper and often used, our collection contains many examples, many of which were created by Utagawa Hiroshige, the very last great ukiyo-e master.

Hokusai’s Japanese woman (1760-1849) vintage ukiyo-e style

Colorful summer celebrations, sun-drenched hazes, and cool respite were common themes in the patterns and motifs seen on fans. The intricate patterns on the fans from the Edo era provide a window into the personal style of their owners as well as the popular trends of the time.

The manufacturing procedure

Prints made from a single woodblock in the beginning were only black and white. There were instances when they were manually coloured, but this was a costly operation. Printing with pink and green required the use of extra woodblocks in the 1740s, but the process of printing with multiple colour woodblocks wasn't refined until 1765. The resulting full-color prints, known as nishiki-e (or "brocade images"), were works of beauty.

Kobikicho Arayashiki Koiseya Ochie

The ukiyo-e quartet referred to the group of people who worked together to create ukiyo-e. It included the publisher (who typically oversaw everything), the artist/designer, the block cutter, and the printer.

The designer would sketch out their idea on paper. When everything was finished, a duplicate was produced and mounted on a block of cherry wood with the finished side facing up. Cherry wood was used because of its beautiful, uniform grain and steady density. The 'key-block' was then created by cutting straight through the duplicate with the block cutter.

To get all the colours in the final print, the printer generated additional blocks from the key-black block's and white prints. These proofs, also known as "key-block proofs," are distinguished by registration markings, which appear as tiny rectangles in the border of the print. These notations used as "stops" during the carving process of the colour blocks, allowing the printer to perfectly align the various colours.