Dragon Palace under the Sea, Edo period, 1740s, Ukiyo-E
Art,  English

The Rise of Ukiyo-e – The Floating World

Intro video creditPage turn video by CK FreeVideo Templates

The text below is the excerpt of the book Impressions of Ukiyo-E (ASIN: ‎1646996313), written by Woldemar von Seidlitz and Dora Amsden, published by Parkstone International.

The Art of Ukiyo-e is a “spiritual rendering of the realism and naturalness of the daily life, intercourse with nature, and imaginings, of a lively impressionable race, in the full tide of a passionate craving for art.” This characterisation of Jarves sums up forcibly the motive of the masters of Ukiyo-e, the Popular School of Japanese Art, so poetically interpreted as “The Floating World”.

To the Passionate Pilgrim and devotee of nature and art who has visited the enchanted Orient, it is unnecessary to prepare the way for the proper understanding of Ukiyo-e. This joyous idealist trusts less to dogma than to impressions. “I know nothing of Art, but I know what I like,” is the language of sincerity, sincerity which does not take a stand upon creed or tradition, nor upon cut and dried principles and conventions. It is truly said that “they alone can pretend to fathom the depth of feeling and beauty in an alien art, who resolutely determine to scrutinise it from the point of view of an inhabitant of the place of its birth.”

View of a Kabuki Theatre, c. 1800, Ukiyo-E
Utagawa Toyokuni, View of a Kabuki Theatre, c. 1800. Colour woodblock print, 37.7 x 74.7 cm. The British Museum, London.

To the born cosmopolite who assimilates alien ideas by instinct or the gauging power of his sub-conscious intelligence the feat is easy, but to the less intuitively gifted, it is necessary to serve a novitiate, in order to appreciate “a wholly recalcitrant element like Japanese Art, which at once demands attention, and defies judgment upon accepted theories”. These sketches are not an individual expression, but an endeavour to give in condensed form the opinions of those qualified by study and research to speak with authority upon the form of Japanese Art, which in its most concrete development the Ukiyo-e print is claiming the attention of the art world.

As the Popular School (Ukiyo-e) was the outcome of over a thousand years of growth, it is necessary to glance back along the centuries in order to understand and follow the processes of its development.

Though the origin of painting in Japan is shrouded in obscurity, and veiled in tradition, there is no doubt that China and Korea were the direct sources from which it derived its art; whilst more indirectly she was influenced by Persia and India – the sacred font of oriental art – as of religion, which have always gone hand in hand.

Beautiful Woman at Daybreak on New Year's Day, 1794-1795, Ukiyo-E
Eishosai Choki, Beautiful Woman at Daybreak on New Year’s Day, 1794-1795. Colour woodblock print, 37.4 x 25.6 cm. Baur Collection, Geneva.

In China, the Ming dynasty gave birth to an original style, which for centuries dominated the art of Japan; the sweeping calligraphic strokes of Hokusai mark the sway of hereditary influence, and his wood-cutters, trained to follow the graceful, fluent lines of his purely Japanese work, were staggered by his sudden flights into angular realism.

The Chinese and Buddhist schools of art dated from the sixth century, and in Japan the Emperor Heizei founded an imperial academy in 808. This academy, and the school of Yamato-e (paintings derived from ancient Japanese art, as opposed to the Chinese art influence), founded by Fujiwara Motomitsu in the eleventh century, led up to the celebrated school of Tosa, which with Kanö, its august and aristocratic rival, held undisputed supremacy for centuries, until challenged by plebeian Ukiyo-e, the school of the common people of Japan.

The school of Tosa has been characterised as the manifestation of ardent faith, through the purity of an ethereal style. Tosa represented the taste of the court of Kyoto, and was relegated to the service of the aristocracy; it reflected the esoteric mystery of Shinto and the hallowed entourage of the divinely descended Emperor. The ceremonial of the court, its fêtes and religious solemnities – dances attended by daimios (feudal lords), in robes of state falling in full harmonious folds – were depicted with consummate elegance and delicacy of touch, which betrayed familiarity with the occult methods of Persian miniature painting. The Tosa artists used very fine, pointed brushes, and set off the brilliance of their colouring with resplendent backgrounds in gold leaf, and it is to Tosa we owe the intricate designs, almost microscopic in detail, which are to be seen upon the most beautiful specimens of gold lacquer work; and screens, which for richness have never been surpassed.

Sodegaura, in the Shimosa Province, c.1834-1835, Ukiyo-E
Katsushika Hokusai, Sodegaura, in the Shimosa Province, from the series Rare Views of Famous Landscapes, c. 1834-1835. Print on blue woodblock, 23.6 x 30.1 cm. Chibashi Collection, Bijutsukan.

Japanese Art was ever dominated by the priestly hierarchy, and also by temporal rulers, and of this the school of Tosa was a noted example, as it received its tide from the painterprince, Tsunetaka, who, besides being the originator of an artistic centre, held the position of vicegovernor of the province of Tosa. From its incipience, Tosa owed its prestige to the Emperor and his nobles, as later Kanö became the official school of the usurping Shoguns. Thus the religious, political and artistic histories of Japan were ever closely allied. The Tosa style was combated by the influx of Chinese influence, culminating in the fourteenth century, in the rival school of Kanö…

Three of famous paintings of Ukiyo-E:

Beauties of the East, from the series Beauties of East, West, South and North, c. 1770
Kitao Shigemasa, Beauties of the East, from the series Beauties of East, West, South and North, c. 1770. Brocade print, 36.8 x 26.2 cm. Tokyo National Museum, Tokyo.
Three Beauties, mid-1790s
Kitagawa Utamaro, Three Beauties, mid-1790s. Oban size.
A Sudden Shower on the Ohashi Bridge and Atake, 1857
Utagawa Hiroshige, A Sudden Shower on the Ohashi Bridge and Atake, from the series One Hundred Famous Views of Edo, 1857. Colour woodblock print, 36 x 23.7 cm. Brooklyn Museum of Art, New York.

See more on Ukiyo-E here:

Baur Foundation, Museum of Far Eastern Art

Japan Ukiyo-e Museum

Ota Memorial Museum of Art

Fujisawa Ukiyo-E Museum

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