Ukiyo-e woodblock prints in color

Ukiyo-e | Beautiful Woodblock Prints, also known as Japonisme

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One of the Japanese forms of visual art that became famous in the western world is ukiyo-e. These pictures are woodblock prints depicting scenes from Japan around the 17th century. The vivid colors, novel composition, and flowing lines of Ukiyo-e cause great interest in the West. It even sparked a fashion trend that one French art critic called ‘Japonism‘. What kind of pictures can you find on ukiyo-e? And where in Japan can you see these nostalgia-evoking works of art?

Ukiyoe,woodblock prints

What is Ukiyo-e?

Ukiyo-e literally means ‘pictures of the floating world’ and it comes from a Buddhist metaphor for the transient world of fleeting pleasures. The subjects chosen by artists for their woodblock prints were characters and scenes from the ‘floating world’ of the entertainment quarters in Edo (later day Tokyo), Kyoto, and Osaka.

The floating world, centered in pleasure districts such as Edo’s Yoshiwara, was like an upside-down kingdom, an inversion of the usual social hierarchies that were held in place by the power of the Tokugawa shogunate. Here, money meant more than rank, actors and artists were the arbiters of style, and prostitutes elevated their art to such a level that their accomplishment matched those of the women of nobility.

Ukiyo-e became a key influence on impressionists and post-impressionists. Among the Japanese, the prints were hardly that special, as millions were produced annually in Edo. They were often thrown away or used as wrapping paper for pottery. For many years, the Japanese continued to be surprised by the strong interest foreigners took in this art form, which they considered of momentary value at that time.

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