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FAQ: What were the origins of Ukiyo-e?


Buddhas detailThe earliest preserved woodblock-printed book appears to be an illustrated Chinese scroll of Buddhist scriptures from the Diamond Sutra, dated 868 AD. As Japan opened formal relations with China in the fifth century, the first Japanese woodblock prints may also date from at least the time of this Chinese scroll. Unfortunately, it is difficult to estimate when woodblock printing began in Japan, as so few early specimens have survived, and those that have are rarely dated.

Among the first block printed images known in Japan are personal seals; there are also early religious icons. Buddhists believed that creating many images of the Buddha would help to prepare one's path toward salvation. A fruitful way to do this was to stamp hundreds or thousands of block-carved pictures each day (see the detail on the right from a sheet with 100 Amida Nyôrai or Amitâbha, made during the Heian Period, 794-1185). Sheets of stamped images were also used as offerings for the dead, sometimes by placing the printed sheets inside of religious icons or statues. In addition to printing sutras and scriptures, temples also used distributed images to pilgrims as votive prints, amulets, or exchanges for monetary offerings.

The earliest woodblock prints depicting fully-developed ukiyo-e subjects appeared in the 17th century. The distant antecedents of ukiyo-e included early yamato-e ("Japanese pictures": 大和絵) found in picture scrolls as early as the Heian period. There were, for example, decorative onna-e (women's-style paintings: 女絵) characterized by areas of opaque colors applied within strong outlines and the drawing convention called hikime kagihana ("slit eyes and hooked nose": 引目鈎鼻), adapted by ukiyo-e artists five centuries later for the drawing of faces. After the Heian period various aspects of the early yamato-e painting style flourished in the Tosa (土佐) school, and by the 16th century Kanô-school artists (followers of Kanô Masanobu, 狩野正信 1434-1559) also adopted some elements of yamato-e painting. Furthermore, classical Chinese painting models exerted some influence, either directly through imported paintings and block-printed books or filtered through adaptations by Japanese artists, as in the Kanô school where an eclecticism of several styles was typical of those artists. By the 16th century, there were also Nara-e (Nara pictures: 奈良絵), a somewhat more popularized adaptation of the Tosa style presented in illustrated books and scrolls.

Ukiyo-e artists, many trained in these traditional schools of painting, incorporated various elements from the long history of native Japanese and imported Chinese painting styles. The flowering of ukiyo-e represented a unique development whereby traditional Japanese painting methods were adapted and mixed with new methodologies in the service of depicting contemporary urban subject matter — the everyday world of the merchant or commoner class. The most immediate predecessors to ukiyo-e paintings were probably the early painted genre screens of the Momoyama period (late 16th - early 17th centuries), which occasionally included figures and scenes that were prototypically ukiyo-e in style and subject matter. Although these screens were commissioned by the ruling class and depicted the nobility, they also included, on occasion, views of commoners at leisure or enjoying entertainments. Their stylized realism brought the pictures one step closer to providing models for artists of the lower class to portray the shared experience of their everyday lives.

Transitional artists of the mid-16th through the early 17th centuries, such as Iwasa Matabei (岩佐 又兵衛 1578-1650) and his pupils, or a few important but still unnamed masters, have been identified as important contributors toward the development of a pictorial style that would support the tone and subject matter of the first true ukiyo-e artists. There were also experiments in ukiyo-e woodblock printing of unsigned courtesan critiques or "pillow books" about the Yoshiwara pleasure quarters, issued circa 1660 or slightly earlier. Finally, in the early 1670s, Hishikawa Moronobu appeared. He was trained in Kanô (狩野) and Tosa (土佐) painting styles, but began to blend traditional techniques with the sensibility and style of his proto-ukiyo-e predecessors. The result was not the "invention" of ukiyo-e — for that required decades of development — but rather a more fully realized, highly popular hybrid art form of sophisticated range and emotion that can truly be called "ukiyo-e." ©1999-2002 by John Fiorillo

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