The art exhibition, “The Ukiyo-e 2020” is held at Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum till September 22nd 2020 and exhibits a total of 450 ukiyo-e prints that are specially selected for this exhibition from Ōta Memorial Museum of Art, Japan Ukiyo-e Museum, and Hiraki Ukiyo-e Foundation. This is the first ever to hold such a huge selections of ukiyo-e prints at one place from all periods between the 17th to 19th centuries. Separating into 5 different sections, this exhibition will take the visitors through the history of Ukiyo-e.
Section 1: Early Ukiyo-e
Ukiyo-e is Japanese woodblock prints that flourished during the Edo period across Edo, the present-day Tokyo. As a form of mass entertainment by the common people, ukiyo-e depicted popular geisha, sumo wrestlers, and kabuki actors. In this first section, works from the beginning/early period of ukiyo-e with works by renowned artists like Hishikawa Moronobu, who is considered to be the father of ukiyo-e art are on display.
Ukiyo-e began with “sumizurie”, a woodblock printed monochromatically with black ink. But by the late 17th century, over Sumizurie (a black-ink only woodblock print), red and a few subsidiary colors called “beni” were painted over using a brush to add some color to ukiyo-e. Having such history, this section displays works that are colorless but with minimal color compared to other sections. At the dawn of such period, famous artists like Kiyomasu Torii focused Kabuki billboards, and Toyonobu Ishikawa usually depicted oiran(a historical term for high-ranking courtesans in Japan who were not considered to be merely prostitutes known as yūjo) and her male companion.
Section 2: The birth of Nishiki-e
Nishiki-e is ukiyo-e in complete color or a general term for ukiyo-e woodblock prints made after 1765. By the late 18th century, many of the ukiyo-e were in color and Harunobu Suzuki who was especially famous for his “bijinga” (prints of beautiful women) took an active role during this period. After his death, artists like Koryusai Isoda, Buncho Ippitsusai, and Shunsho Katsukawa took over the role. Not knowing the impact Toyoharu Utagawa would bring upon the ukiyo-e art in the later era, he was interested in the perspective of Western art and began drawing ukiyo-e with natural depth. This influenced the depiction of backgrounds in genre paintings in the later periods.
Section 3: Different Prints
This section focuses more on the different prints, especially the “Bijinga” (prints of beautiful women) and “Yakusha-e” (prints of actors). There are works by such famous artist like Kiyonaga Torii who illustrated women in taller slender forms and Utamaro Kitagawa who drew women with thick neck focused on their facial expressions are on display.
Taking pictures are prohibited in the museum. However this photo was taken during the press day so photos were allowed by those who were given permission.
One of the worldwide famous artists, Tōshūsai Sharaku focused on portraits of kabuki actors. Still, a mysterious figure, although he had worked for only a year, he left behind many famous works including “Soga Gorou and Yakusho Goroumaru” which is the only one believed to be left in the world. It is a very rare occasion to see such precious works during this exhibition illustrated by him at once.
Section 4: Diversification
Unlike the ukiyo-e seen through section 1 to 3, it is so obvious that the ukiyo-e exhibited here are more colorful with full of information. It is because, by the early 19th century, the amount of information displayed on the canvas of Nishiki-e(ukiyo-e in color) was increased with a design ingenuity in composition to add more detail. With more interest in the landscapes of western art, there were more ukiyo-e with horizons placed low in which it created a dynamic that allowed the eyes to wander through the image easily with a greater sense of depth and drama.
Just before exiting the section 4, on one wall, there are few fan print designs which survived till now. These are known as “Uchiwa-e” and literally translated as ukiyo-e for paddle-shaped hand fans known as “uchiwa” in Japanese. Taking a close look at the artworks, it is shaped in a unique circular shape. This is because these artworks were meant to cut along the margins and pasted onto a skeletal bamboo frame to turn into a fan. Ukiyo-e wasn’t just to entertain the eye but also for practical use in such style like fan and interior decoration like pillar prints called “Hashira-e”. These rare designs survived as it was a sample left over at the fan shop and those turned into the fans were lost over time.
This section covers the 2 most famous ukiyo-e artists worldwide, Katsushika Hokusai who is famous for his Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji series, which contain the prints of The Great Wave off Kanagawa. He established a new style of ukiyo-e with pictures of famous places known as “meisho-e” style. The other being Hiroshige Utagawa’s masterpiece, Fifty-three Stations of the Tokaido Road. In the time of peace towards the end of the Edo period where ordinary people had enough time and money to travel, these “meisho-e” style arts gained popularity.
At the end of the exhibition, there is a gift shop with wide selection of ukiyo-e items ranging from postcards to books to T-shirts to many more. Even the worldwide famous Japanese dinosaur character is in ukiyo-e style.