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What Became of the Floating World

Two Prints from The Fifteen Views of Kyoto, 1950-1960
Tomikichiro Tokuriki (Japanese, 1902–1999)
Woodblock print on paper; 15 x 13 in.
81.8.1J, K
Gift of Mr. Kerwin Jacobs
Beauty Reading a Letter, late 18th Century
Utamaro (Japanese 1753-1806)
Woodblock print on paper; 19 x 13 in.
Evylena Nunn Miller Memorial Collection
Ukiyo-e, the term for a style of Japanese woodblock printing at its height during the Edo (1603-1868) and Meiji (1868-1912) periods, translates to “pictures of the floating world.” The ephemeral, fleeting Japan it depicted was simultaneously pitied by followers of Buddhism and publicly hailed by an emerging class of literati. Together with shin-hanga, a perspective-based style introduced after Japan was opened to the west in 1853, the two genres of Japanese woodblock print served to form a basis for Japanese media to the modern day.
Within the region woodblock printing originated in China and came to Japan soon after the arrival of Buddhism in the 8th Century. Though it began as a utilitarian way to copy and easily disseminate scriptures, woodblock printing in Japan would eventually focus on vastly different subjects than religious texts. The onset of the Edo period saw a boom in wealth and education leading to the flourishing of arts and literature. Despite Buddhism renouncing the worldly in favor of finding inner peace, the emerging arts began to focus on the cast and characters of red-light districts: beautiful women, carnal pleasures, and Kabuki theatre. Colorful, bold-line ukiyo-e prints from the red-light district’s world of desires were readily received as art, and became all the more popular due to how widely affordable they were and the skill involved in the craft.
Kitagawa Utamaro (1753-1806) is one of the most famous ukiyo-e artists, living during the golden age of Japanese art. This print from the Bowers Museum’s Collections is a perfect example of his work as he was considered a master of multiple subjects in his prints. His prints of beautiful women were one of a kind, even considered to have never been equaled. In this print, we can see a beauty actively reading a letter and fixing her hair with her other hand. Though it is an idealization of a person, we can also see great depth of character, and an insight and naturalism characteristic of Utamaro. This is something we can especially see in his depictions of woman and children, where he gives incredible visualizations of the psychological relationship and bond between the two. He is also well-known for more lurid prints which one might expect to have arisen from red-light districts.
This subject matter was the heart of woodblock prints, but after the fall of the Tokugawa Shogunate it changed rather rapidly. Japan being forcibly opened to the West accelerated the assimilation of Western art styles into Japanese traditional art. Ukiyo-e, with hundreds of years of tradition, found itself side by side with new and well received European paintings. Woodblocks were made by teams of artists, printers, engravers, and publishers; and as much as the work they created was art, their financial necessity meant that they could not afford to produce prints which would not sell. Something had to give, and so ukiyo-e adopted a new perspective. Landscapes and traveling scenes became the most desired and popular subject matter, with Western point of view and lighting styles. The attraction of traditional ukiyo-e subjects diminished, making way for a new wave of Japanese woodblock printing called shin-hanga, “new prints.” Shin-hanga kept to the traditional Japanese ukiyo-e aesthetic, becoming something of a modernist revival of the preceding style. One of the most famous artists of this time was Hasui Kawase (1883-1957). His print in the Bowers’ Collections illustrates how shin-hanga differed from traditional ukiyo-e prints. It’s superior depth and the use of Western perspective, were painstakingly learned and utilized by Kawase to create more realistic images. He was also among the best in his use of light effects in his prints which can easily be seen in the way the light of the moon reflects off of the water, sails, and fishermen.
Boats at Shinagawa, Night, mid to late 20th Century
Tsuchiya Koitsu (Japanese, 1870–1949)
Woodblock print on paper; 18 x 13 in.
Gift of Ms. Alice B. Marshall
These two eras of Japanese woodblock printing, namely ukiyo-e’s golden age of art and shin-hanga’s introduction coinciding with Japanese globalization, are extremely important as they help mark a transition of Asian art in general. Together the two would directly lead into the comparatively new Japanese mediums of manga and its animated counterpart anime, both of which are now widely consumed outside of Japan as well as in their country of origin.
Text and images may be under copyright. Please contact Collection Department for permission to use. Information subject to change upon further research.
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