Ukiyo-e, a picture of Japanese art history

A framed print of an Utagawa Kunisada (Toyokuni III) ukiyo-e triptych depicting a scene from a kabuki performance with a woman and two men, one with a sword and shield and the other hiding behind a screen.

When I started travelling to Japan, I knew precious little about Japanese art. Despite studying art and art history through school and at university, my exposure to Asian art in general was very limited. My knowledge of ukiyo-e, woodblock printing, was limited to famous images such as Hokusai’s The Great Wave (actually called Under the Wave off Kanagawa) and a few other Mt. Fuji scenes, as well as a couple of Hiroshige prints, depicting Edo (Tokyo) locals on a bridge, in the rain. I always appreciated the beauty, but never really understood the process or much about the period and place.

After travelling to Japan several times and really gaining an interest in all things Japanese, the language, the culture and the history, as well as the food, of course, I started taking a more keen interest in the art. A couple of visits to a lovely Kitsushika Hokusai exhibition at the Nation Gallery of Victoria, here in Melbourne, my interest increased. One afternoon we were wondering through a local Japanese antique store and happened upon a print that I fell in love with, on the spot. We had moved into a new house and needed something to put above our fireplace and I knew this print was perfect. The artist was Utagawa Kunisada (Toyokuni III) and it was dated 1859. The title was not listed, just that it was a Kabuki Triptych and the publisher (Daikokuya Heikichi) and the carver (Horitake) were listed. I had not ever heard of the artist and I must say, discovering this piece had taken me on a journey of discovery that I look forward to continuing. I also look forward to being able to further my modest collection on future trips to Japan, once COVID settles and we can travel internationally.

Months after we purchased this print we returned to Japan and visited a large antique market, a once a year event, in Kyoto. This was a lot of fun and had we been able to fit a full samurai armour in my case, I would probably own one of those, too. We did however find several galleries selling ukiyo-e. One had a lovely collection of Utagawa Kunisada works, and after much deliberation and mind-changing, we settled on our second Kunisada print. This one was unframed, and after being in lockdown for the best part of a year, we finally had it framed last month. Fortuitously by the same framer who had framed our other print. (I will shamelessly plug Winston, at Magic Picture Framing in Windsor, in Melbourne. He is a consummate professional and the most reasonably priced framer I have encountered).

Ukiyo-e, literal translation, pictures of ukiyo. Ukiyo is translated literally as “floating world” and defined as the transient life, particularly the pleasurable urban lifestyle during the Edo period. The red light districts were also referred to as ukiyo, but it also encompasses geisha, art, music and other aspects of Edo period culture, or Edo pop-culture was another suggestion I thought was fitting. E in Japanese 絵 means picture. So, ukiyo-e is pictures of the floating world.

Utagawa Kunisada, was born in Edo (Tokyo) in 1786. His family owned a ferry company and his father was an accomplished amateur poet. He died when his son was only a year old. Showing talent for drawing at an early age, Kunisada was apprenticed by master Toyokuni, of the Utagawa School, and his first known dated print was in 1807. By 1809 he had more commissions than both Toyokuni and Hokusai.

Working predominantly on actor portraits, kabuki scenes and bijin-ga (beauties- pictures of women in the latest fashions), he also did many series of Tales of Genji works. The Tales of Genji, by Murasaki Shikibu, written in 1004, is considered the first ever novel written. He was a trend-setter and developed his style continuously. He was prolific, with as many as 14,500 prints catalogued and perhaps as many as 20,000-25,000 existing at the time. When the strict censorship laws were passed in 1842/1843, part of the Tenpo Reforms, restricting luxury, actor prints and bijin-ga were banned. Kunisada side stepped this problem by starting to work on sumo wrestler prints. These became very fashionable. In 1844 he was awarded the title Toyokuni, and he became the head of the Utagawa School as was the tradition. The censorship laws were rolled back in the early 1850s and by this time Kunisada was the most influential artist, operating the largest studio in Edo. He remained popular for the entirety of his five decade career and his reputation was greater than any other artist working at the time. His later prints featured complex designs and special printing effects.

The two prints I have were made 10 years apart. Our first print, the untitled triptych, printed 1859, is still my favourite. The second print, that we purchased in Kyoto, at the antique market, is titled Kaze 風 which means wind. It is from a series titled 花鳥風月ノ内 kacho fugetsu no uchi meaning Flower, Bird, Wind and Moon, believed to perhaps be based on the chapter from Genji titled Typhoon. It was printed in 1849. Kaze is a favourite kanji (character) of mine to write and I loved the movement in the print. I really feel that we are guardians of history owning these incredible art works. They are beautiful and I am looking forward to learning more about ukiyo-e. As usual, Super Sake Boy super spoiled me at Christmas and one of my gifts was an incredible book about ukiyo-e. Japanese Woodblock Prints, by Andreas Marks and published by Taschen is a gigantic book with 200 plates. Some of the prints are tri-fold pages and the book is a wealth of knowledge. Some of the information in my blog was gleaned from these beautiful pages. Hopefully I will be writing about ukiyo-e again in future, when I have a little more knowledge.

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