Hiroshige (1797–1858), Japanese woodblock print of Mt. Fuji and Mt. Ashigara viewed from Numazu in clear weather after a snowfall.
According to ancient Buddhist belief, material reality and the activities of ordinary life (yo) were illusory, fleeting, impermanent. Here is how the scholar Michael Shigeru Inoue unpacks the modern meaning of Ukiyo-e:
“The original characters for the word ukiyo, used in a Buddhist context, expressed the idea of a material world filled with anxiety, worry, and affliction (uki). During the Edo period [1603–1868], which was a bohemian time of peace and prosperity in Japan, new homonymous kanji characters [i.e., derived from Chinese characters] for ukiyo arose that literally mean ‘floating world,’ but they now were used to refer to the joys and pleasures of the fleeting life on earth.”
Ukiyo-e’s gorgeous paintings and prints illustrate that the world’s delights, in time, float away. But what delights! The woodblock prints that proliferated from the 17th till the 19th Century represented the pleasures of courtesan culture, theater, and fashion, as well as legends and events of Japan’s past. Ukiyo-e artists were dream merchants. Like travel-magazine illustrators, they depicted to town folk destinations in faraway places (dreamy renderings of hammering waterfalls, swaying forests, lush country pastures) and moments of blissful respite from daily tasks. They also depicted those tasks, the daily toil of farmers, porters, miners, and other laborers.
If, like me, you know Ukiyo-e primarily because of the influence its prints — with flattened depths, sinuous deployment of contents, and restricted but concentrated palette — had on Western artists (Van Gogh owned 400 prints), an exhibition split between the San Diego Museum of Art and the University of San Diego, Dreams and Diversions, will break open a new world. It’s a generously instructive introductory course in Ukiyo-e’s origins, development, thematic preoccupations, and techniques. Most of us are acquainted with the rainy landscapes, rice-paddy farmers, and slinky prostitutes of Ukiyo-e, but the hundreds of woodblock prints on display dial in on its marvelous varieties, like the proto-collage composition called Harimaze. Very popular in 19th-century Japan, Harimaze prints were single-sheet scrapbooks containing cutouts of popular scenes, events, and places configured in an interior picture-space.
Ukiyo-e was a collaborative art. Artists like Kitagawa Utamaro, Katsushika Hokusai, and Utagawa Hiroshige passed their renderings to carvers who executed their visions in wood blocks that were then given to printers who controlled the color consistencies and intensities of texture and line; the artist then hand-colored the prints, which went to a publisher or dealer who cultivated a clientele for pictures and albums. Dreams and Diversions tracks Ukiyo-e’s changes: woodblock presses progressed from two to three to multicolored prints; artists responded to technical advances in carving and inking; the conventional courtesan figure shape-shifted from a stocky, curvy, full-featured creature to a more lithe, statuesque type. In any art form, a change in figure, stance, gesture, and grouping records a changing model of desirability. Japanese art is sublimely erotic, though viewers accustomed to other expressions of erotic desire may not respond to it. The highly stylized nature of Ukiyo-e makes it seem uniform — erotic album sets were made for a male merchant-class with shared models of idealized behavior and beauty — but Dreams and Diversions trains our eye to be more alert to variation than to standardization. Kitao Masanobu’s 1784 print of six courtesans (they’re showing off their calligraphy styles, one attribute of a woman’s refinement) pulls the tall, “new type” figures into two groups, but each figure has a distinctive personality and features, each performs a separate action, yet all are swept and tied together by confluent lines and sheeted fabrics.
Spend enough time with these prints (not all in the best of health: some are faded) and the variety sensitizes us to different styles. Hiroshige’s pictures of birds, for instance, differed from those of another Ukiyo-e artist, Utagawa Kuniyoshi, in their often satirical or humorous representation. Kuniyoshi’s world is a more ferocious place. However realistic the presentation of subjects from nature, Ukiyo-e artists associated birds and other creatures with certain attributes: cranes, longevity; geese, reliability; swallows, good luck (and marital fidelity). In Ukiyo-e, the natural order is a moral order.
Kabuki actors were public celebrities and another prime subject. As kids pin rock-star posters to their walls, Kabuki fans acquired prints of their favorite actors to hang in their houses. The most famous Kabuki entertainment — treated by Ukiyo-e artists sometimes soberly, sometimes as caricature — were stories of ronin, samurai warriors who had lost their daiymo, their feudal lord. The most famous was Chushingura (The Treasure of Loyal Retainers), a tense, slowly told tale of 47 ronin in the early 18th Century who waited years to avenge their daimyo’s death. (There are two fine, slow-till-slaughter-time film versions available on DVD.) Ukiyo-e trains us to “read” a print vertically, whether we’re following a mountain trail down through clouds past streams and forests or studying (eavesdropping, really) on some historical event. The long, narrow hashira-e, or “pillar print,” made to decorate a pillar inside a
Just as America received accounts of the newly explored Far West through the great advertising tools of 19th-century photographic images, the Ukiyo-e prints I mentioned earlier attracted a thriving merchant-class to visit desirable destinations, in fact or in their imaginations. Hiroshige made an enchanting, visually loaded set of prints of the famous 53 stations along the Tokaido Road, a coastal highway connecting Edo to Kyoto, with a (usually witty) poem worked into the scene. One of these, Shono: Driving Rain shows off his skills in shifting gradually across the page from heavy-skinned darkness to rain-veils made of zippy lines shaved and shredded from tree tops. One picture spins a whirlpool’s energy in a way that cranks our gaze up from the bottom of the page toward the craggy, whippy spindrift peaking and curling up and around the paper.
Another majestic place, Mt. Fuji, so spiritually important in the lives of the Japanese, was famously documented by Hiroshige’s contemporary, Hokusai, whose two major books, the color prints of Thirty-six Views of Mt. Fuji and the black-and-white series Hundred Views of Mt. Fuji, include people going about their daily routines overseen by the grand mountain. Fuji has strong associations with immortality, so these beautiful, robust pictures remind us that the human is small and passing, indeed, and that even our closest material realization of immortality is itself a part of the stuff of this world.
Dreams and Diversions has two venues, The San Diego Museum of Art in Balboa Park and the University of San Diego. It will be on view till June 5, with a complete rotation of prints — the first rotation of Hiroshige’s Kyoka Tokaido, for instance, contains prints of stations 1 through 26, the second rotation displays the remainder — February 26, 2011. ■
Dreams and Diversions, San Diego Museum of Art, 1450 El Prado, Balboa Park, 619-232-7931; University of San Diego, Robert and Karen Hoehn Family Galleries, 5998 Alcalá Park, 619-260-4600. Through June 5.