Vol. 10 No. 2, 2007
By Lucy Birmingham
"Ukiyo-e: The Floating World"
Created for about 200-years from the mid-1600s, ukiyo-e celebrated the hedonistic delights of the cordoned off brothel and theatre district of Yoshiwara in the capital of Edo (old Tokyo). Like the precursors of magazines and TV, the cheap and plentiful pictures of fashionable courtesans, heart-thumping Kabuki stars, lionized sumo wrestlers and erotica called shunga, delighted the masses and newly moneyed townsmen chaffing under the tight-fisted control of a fading shogunate. The great nature and landscape prints like Hokusai’s iconic “Great Wave off Kanagawa” and Hiroshige’s “Fifty-Three Stations of the Tokaido” were printed from the mid-1800s as travel souvenirs.
Despite their popularity, ukiyo-e artists were generally not well respected by the elite samurai class. The artists with connections got into the famous Kano and Tosa school studios and established secure careers. As printmakers, they were considered more like graphic designers than fine artists. It was more for love of the lifestyle that ukiyo-e artists worked, trading reputation perhaps for a good time.
Japanese ukiyo-e artists like Hokusai, Hiroshige and Utamaro were the Pop artists of their time who knew how to please with originality, drama and social satire. A look at these 18th century woodblock print masters and their “pictures of the floating world” reveals time-tested beauty. Print publishers, who produced and distributed these prints, were the patrons.
Until the introduction of moveable type to Japan 150 years ago, books and ukiyo-e prints in Japan were made using an identical process. The only difference was that book printing was black and white, requiring just one woodblock, while polychrome prints like ukiyo-e needed separate blocks for each colour. The ukiyo-e printing process involved a factory-like team of workers. The artist’s drawings — first checked by a censor – were designed and transferred to woodblocks by one group of specialists. Once verified and colour-checked by the artist, they were then printed by another team. The ukiyo-e bought as travel souvenirs were issued in editions of 20,000. With these large editions, the colour intensity varied widely and slight changes in the woodblock itself could alter the printed scene.
Among the most popular of the “souvenir” ukiyo-e artists is Hiroshige Andou (1797-1894). Although he created all kinds of prints like bijinga (beautiful women) and actors, he became most famous for his “53 Stations of the Tokaido” series. These prints depicted people and landscape with remarkable sensitivity and visual poetry. A special technique called bokashi — a cloth soaked in ink and dabbed directly onto the woodblock — created the smooth gradations of his distinctive shadows.
The Tokaido was an important roadway between the new capital of Edo (old Tokyo) seat of the ruling shogunate, and the old imperial capital of Kyoto where the emperor remained, a powerless figure at the time. The road was well trod in sections but also had perilous heights like the 1400 meter Hakone pass near Mt. Fuji. A strong man could walk up to 40-kilometers per day and cover the entire distance between 12 and 14 days. A horse and litter could be hired in parts that were not dangerous. All travellers, except the samurai and aristocracy, were required to present passport-like travel papers at the many check points along the way.
Hiroshige reportedly travelled the Tokaido himself in 1832 but in regal comfort as part of an official entourage that annually delivered a symbolic gift of horses from shogun to emperor. Hiroshige had close connections with the shogunate as a member of the military aristocracy. Between the ages of 12 to 33, he was head of the important Edo fire brigade, a position he inherited after the sudden death of his father. Even after becoming an artist at 33, Hiroshige continued to spend most of his life within the shogun’s vast palace.
The art form might have been a footnote in history, but in the 1860s ukiyo-e prints like Hiroshige’s started to become popular in the West. Cheap and sold by the pound, the prints were often used as liners in souvenir boxes brought home by European travelers. Charming and exotic, artists like Van Gogh, Monet, Toulouse-Lautrec and Whistler used the imagery in their work, ultimately creating the French-based Japonisme art movement that lasted between 1854-1910.
Many believe that Westerners rescued ukiyo-e from obscurity. Architect Frank Lloyd Wright amassed a large and enviable collection at rock bottom prices during his work sojourns in Japan in the early 1900s. “It is said that Wright made more money some years from selling his ukiyo-e prints to clients than from architect fees,” said Allison Tolman, President of the Japanese Art Society of America (formerly the Ukiyo-e Society of America.)
One of the largest ukiyo-e collections is at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (50-70,000 prints), created largely from donations by enthusiastic collectors like the Spaulding brothers. Other large museum collections include The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York (2-3,000 prints) and the Art Institute of Chicago (about 4,000 prints.) Japanese museums, finally realizing they’d forfeited an important artistic heritage, began developing collections in the 1960s. “About one third of our clients are museums, collecting for historical reasons,” said Ken Caplan of Mita Arts, a ukiyo-e specialist in Tokyo's Kanda district..
Nowadays ukiyo-e collectors remain a small but loyal group. “30% of our customers are foreigners, mostly from the U.S.,” said Toshiyuki Hara, third-generation owner of Hara Shobo, who worked at Christies auction house in New York and London for six years. Like most ukiyo-e specialists, they are located in the Kanda section of Tokyo, the used booksellers district where the best quality ukiyo-e bargains can be found. “There’s no other place in the world that offers such a huge selection of ukiyo-e,” said Hara. “Prices here are cheaper than buying from the foreign dealers who tend to be more private and work on an appointment basis.” Like most of the established ukiyo-e sellers Hara Shobo publishes a catalogue of works available with prices.
Outside of Kanda, galleries like the Tolman Collection in Tokyo offer unique ukiyo-e exhibitions. “Not just decorative, ukiyo-e prints are real history and merit study,” said Tolman. “In ukiyo-e, it’s all about condition, condition, condition.”
Tokyo-based avid collector Andrew Horvat suggests buyers go for the icons. “They are the best value and a hedge against inflation,” he said. “It’s no different from collecting serious art.” Included among his 400 ukiyo-e collection preserved under careful temperature control are twelve “100 Views of Edo” by Hiroshige printed before Perry’s Black Ship 1853 arrival in Japan. “For ¥70-80,000 you can get a museum quality Hiroshige,” he said. “It’s always best to get a second opinion as some sellers can really take advantage of novice collectors.”
It’s agreed that among the many genre, bijinga (beautiful women), fuke (landscapes) and kabuki actors are the most popular. Other than the top three, popular ukiyo-e artists also include Moronobu, Harunobu, Kiyonaga and the mysterious Sharaku. But collecing ukiyo-e can be baffling. Vastly produced, the prints were never numbered and artists names are sometimes unclear.
The Japanese Art Society of America is a good information resource with over 350 members in the U.S. and 12 other countries. 2008 is their 35th anniversary when they will hold a major ukiyo-e exhibition in New York at the Asia Society. President Allison Tolman said, “This exhibit will undoubtedly whet the collector’s appetites for these gorgeous examples of traditional Japanese art.”