Monday, November 14, 2005

A thing of beauty

This week, I managed to visit an exhibition on “Ukiyo-e”, a form of woodblock printing that flourished in Japan from the 17th to 19th centuries. The exhibition was organized by the ABK-AOTS Dosokai, an organization involved in cultural exchanges between India and Japan. Now my close friends will know that I have something of a Japan fetish, and ukiyo-e is definitely part of that. So pronto I hauled myself to the exhibition, never mind the pouring rain and fast disappearing roads.

To introduce the subject, Ukiyo-e is a form of woodblock printing – a complex process involving a team effort by an artist, a carver, a printer and a publisher. (Though there were some artists who dispensed with this quartet and got involved in every part of the process themselves). John Fiorillo who maintains this site has a really good write-up on how ukiyo-e prints were made. A long and intricate process indeed, that involved preparing the wood so that the surface was just right for the task, making an initial drawing, cutting away toe surrounding wood to leave the drawing in relief, and then applying the color to finish the block. This carefully prepared block would then be used to transfer the imprint to paper. As the complexity of the work increased, you can imagine how many different colored and shaped blocks would have been required.

I had my first glimpse of a ukiyo-e work some years ago, and I don’t know why I was so immediatetely fascinated by it. I don’t even remember which one it was. Since then, though, I have tried to read up as much as I can on these beautiful, often elegant, mostly refined, sometimes erotic, sometimes crudely powerful works of art. Once in a while, when an exhibition like this comes to town, I get to actually see good prints or reproductions of the woodblocks. Someday I suppose I will actually go to Japan and have a look at the woodprints themselves. In the meanwhile, I thought I could share something about ukiyo-e with those of you who read this blog.

Ukiyo-e were primarily a product of a prosperous time in Japan, when there came up an aspiring merchant class in Edo (present-day Tokyo) with money to spend and leisure time to spare. The entertainments that were the order of the day were the Kabuki theatre and the teahouses that catered to this class of men. Anyone who has read The Memoirs of a Geisha will get a flavour of this period, though that is set in a later day and age. Ukiyo-e prints therefore typically deal with the life of this class – two kinds of subjects being very popular, bijin-ga or beautiful women and yakusha-e or kabuki actors. The earliest prints are much simpler and usually show very limited use of colour. The focus is on the fine drawing, usually stylised depiction of women.

Gradually however the number of colours used in the prints increases, they become more and more vibrant, and the women are no longer just idealised beautiful faces, they start taking on moods, expressions, depressions. One of my favorite artists as far as bijin-ga go, is Kiyonaga. Almost every woman in the ukiyo-e is beautiful, even the ones who are not, but Kiyonaga’s women are particularly beautiful. I couldn’t somehow find a good image online, but this picture by another well known artist Utamaro is a fine expression of a bijin-ga, pensive, thoughtful, face all focused, yet not really towards the viewer, seeing, yet unseeing (Image courtesy the Artcyclopedia -

Among the yakusha-e, my absolute favorite is Sharaku. For some reason, this artist worked for a very short period of time, only about a yearor two, but his work is just terrific. His Kabuki artists are stealthy, crafty, cunning, sometimes scary, often terrifying. Sometimes they look less than human, more like demons possessed. I like to think of them as possessing the stage they walked on, hunger and passion in their extravagantly made-up faces. You can see here one of Sharaku's works, courtesy Jim Breen's ukiyo-e gallery.

The last kind of ukiyo-e paintings really came at the later stage in its history, when color printing had become much more advanced. This is when landscapes really came into their own, and artists often painted them as part of a series, such as the Hokusai’s 36 views of Mt. Fuji or Hiroshige’s 53 stages on the Tokaido Highway. This is a series of paintings, which I love just for the use of the color blue. Who knew the single word had so many meanings and hues to explore and love? See what I mean, this fine picture courtesy this site,

Another landscape series by Hiroshige is the 100 views of Edo depicting all kinds of scenes from interiors and animals to bridges and roads and people walking along. Some pictures below, courtesy the ukiyo-e gallery. For some reason I am unable to upload any pictures here, but if you've come this far, and you are still interested, you can have a look here and here for some beauties.

Ukiyo-e has now for some years been something I love, and I wanted to share something of that, although I am not an authority on the subject. Far from it infact. I have so much to learn, as is the case with most things in life. Occasionally however, the subject makes it all worthwhile!


Anonymous said...

Ah apu, I've just been waiting for this!! Thanks :-)
I really missed it :-(


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