The work of Utamaro, which is diverse and ample, is in line with Japanese tradition, which however, he interprets in a very personal way. It includes pictorial works of various types: prints in a variety of numbers and dimensions, kakemonos*, makimonos*, surimonos* and several painted works, as well as illustrations for books and albums printed in black and white or in colours, including the famous ones for the shungas*. These works are, for the most part, prints for which traditional Japanese techniques were used and, less often, painted works.
Japanese painting traditionally takes one of three great forms: the kakemono* or the makimono*; the fan; and the design for printing, which has the appearance of a design for an engraving, done by the master to be cut into the wood block. The design itself is always done in Indian ink, the painter only experimenting with colours on a few black and white proofs pulled for himself and his friends. A few examples of fans painted by the master survive, including a very artistic one showing the full-length portrait of a Japanese lady, done in a cursory manner, but with great skill and charm, a fan which would have been displayed as a kakemono*. However, none of Utamaro’s designs meant to be carved have come down to us.
It is particularly the prints, the kakemonos* and the surimonos*, which testify to the work of the master. The kakemonos* are large works, meant to be hung on walls; as for the makimonos*, they are works on a small scale meant to be held in the hand; finally, the surimonos* are luxurious versions of block prints. All these works were executed using a complex printing technique, elaborated and improved over the history of the Japanese print, brilliantly used by the Ukiyo-e* artists, who carried their beauty and refinement to the highest perfection. By the middle of the eighteenth century, techniques allowed these works to be printed in colour.
The Ukiyo-e* block print is like “the meeting of two surfaces marvellously arranged one upon the other, the rough grain of the mulberry-wood block and the smoothness of the paper, covered with a fine absorbent pile of plant origin. On the first, the colour may be applied almost dry, on the second, it can be transferred with a delicacy which leaves only a slight trace of colouring floating on the tips of the fibres. And from the interstices between these impregnated cilia bursts forth from its very bosom the full luminous quintessence of the paper, diffusing into the pigment an exquisite gilded light, forming a bidimensional surface alive with vibrations,” according to Professor Fenollosa.
From a technical point of view, the process of wood engraving, with the appearance of being a simple art, in reality requires a proven talent. The steps in the production of prints, their design, engraving, printing, and publication are separate and carried out by different and highly-specialised individuals. These prints are the result of a triple combination, first of a marvellously prepared paper made from the bark of the blackberry bush (Kozo), diluted in rice milk and a gelatinous substance taken from hydrangea and hibiscus roots; second, of pigments, the secret alchemy of which is unknown to any modern artist (hence, the early tan-e prints and beni-e* prints [prints coloured by hand] can never be reproduced); and third, the application of these colours by the master printmaker – the magical hand of the orient whose fingers conceal the mysteries of the past.
These steps are as follows: the artist makes a master design in ink on rice paper. He then pastes this design face down against a wood block cutting away the areas where the paper is blank with a knife or small gouges, thus leaving the reverse of the design in relief on the block, but destroying the original in the process. After applying ink to the carved block, he places a sheet of damp paper over it and applies pressure to the back of the paper with a flat rubber until a uniform transfer of the imprint has been achieved. The paper used could in some cases be embossed (karazuri*), or mixed with rice powder to accentuate the whiteness of the paper (hosho*). The wood used was most often cherry. This gave nearly perfect copies of the original. The standard format for an Ukiyo-e* were the hosoban*, the öban*, the chütanzaku* or the chüban*, but it is possible to find Ukiyo-e* in other formats.
The coloured prints of Utamaro are, as Edmond de Goncourt wrote, a “miracle of art” in which he brought these impressions to an absolute and unsurpassable degree of perfection. The influence of Utamaro, Hiroshige and other masters of Ukiyo-e* revolutionised the sense of colour in the world of art. His keen sense of observation and his technical mastery are perceptible in his marvellous studies of women. He was the first Japanese artist to depart from the traditional treatment of faces. The academic style required the nose to be suggested by an aquiline, calligraphic stroke, the eyes by simple slits, the mouth by a curved flower petal. Utamaro mixed into this unnatural convention a slightly mischievous grace, a spiritual understanding. He kept the traditional lines but brought them closer to human shapes. None of the anatomical details, the graceful lines, the delightful contours of these Japanese women whether lying or standing, escaped his eye. Each of these “feminine figures” took on a true individuality; he was an idealist, who made “a courtesan into a goddess”…
The featured artworks of Utamaro:
|Kakemono||literally hung object or object that one hangs (from kake: hung and mono: object), suspended upright scroll, with a weight attached to the bottom.|
|Makimono||decorative horizontal scroll displaying painted images or calligraphy.|
|Surimono||a luxurious, made-to-order print.|
|Shunga||literally picture of spring, an erotic print.|
|Ukiyo-e||literally pictures of the floating world (from Uki: that which floats above, swims above; yo: world, life, contemporary time; and e: picture, print).|
|Karazuri||literally dry print, a technique of printing in relief without ink, creating patterns with white on white embossing.|
|Hosho||type of paper darkened with rice powder.|
|Hosoban||narrow print, approx. 33 x 15 cm.|
|Öban||large print, dimensions varying from 36 x 25 cm to 39 x 27 cm.|
|Chütanzaku||large print size, approx. 39 x 12 cm.|
|Chüban||medium print size, approx. 26 x 19 cm.|
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