Ukiyo-e is well known throughout the world as a traditional Japanese art. It was developed in Edo (now known as Tokyo) during the Tenna Era (1681-1684) of the Edo Period, when Japan’s doors were closed to foreign trade.
Ukiyo is the sorrow of the physical world in contrast to the joy of the afterlife. In the Edo Period, the idea of transience prompted a shift in thinking toward seeing life as enjoyable rather than as a time of suffering before the release of death. This concept spread to the world of art, where artists began to take the people and events of everyday life as their subject. Most of these were single-colour ink woodblock prints which then evolved into lively pieces printed to entertain the public. Ukiyo-e is the forerunner of pop art.
The main entertainment available at that time was found in licensed quarters and theatrical performances, which artists captured in Ukiyo-e prints such as Bijin-ga (portraits of beautiful women) and Yakusha-e (portraits of kabuki actors). These gained immediate popularity. At the same time, Ukiyo-e prints became popular as souvenirs among visitors to Edo, which helped Ukiyo-e to spread to other regions.
The first Ukiyo-e were black-ink prints known as Sumizuri-e (single-colour woodblock prints). The style gradually changed to include beautiful colours, which marked the beginning of what we have come to know as Ukiyo-e prints. In the mid-Edo Period, woodblock prints in multiple colours were mass produced as Nishiki-e. These Ukiyo-e were produced as joint projects by publishers (Hanmoto), painters (Eshi), woodblock artists (Horishi), and printers (Surishi).
It was during the time when Japan’s doors were closed to most foreign trade that Ukiyo-e prints first found their way outside of Japan. Old Ukiyo-e prints were used to wrap ceramics when they were exported through the Netherlands, which was the only country that Japan traded with.
These Ukiyo-e prints were highly regarded and in the late 19th century, when Japan opened itself to foreign trade, a large number of Ukiyo-e prints were exported to European countries where they became very popular. Currently, many Ukiyo-e prints; which play an important role in introducing Japanese culture abroad, are exhibited at museums in Europe and the U.S.
With the opening of Japan to the world at the end of 19th century, traditional Japanese art, fashion and aesthetics began to influence Western culture in a movement known as Japonism. Ukiyo-e in particular attracted the interest of a wide range of painters, novelists, poets and musicians, including Vincent van Gogh, who was an enthusiastic collector of Ukiyo-e prints and despite living in near poverty, he purchased a number of them. Approximately 500 of the Ukiyo-e prints that Vincent van Gogh and his brother Theororous van Gogh collected are exhibited at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. Ukiyo-e also had a strong impact on his work. One of his works, Portrait of Peré Tanguy, shows Ukiyo-e prints in the background, one of which being an imitation of Hiroshige Utagawa’s work.
Ukiyo-e prints are joint projects undertaken by publishers, painters, woodblock artists and printers. The woodblock artist carves a picture on wood for printing.
The most important thing for woodblock artists is their tools. A knife to carve lines, a flat chisel for line edges, a round chisel for broad and flat areas and a scoop chisel for small areas. The knife is the most important tool among these. The artist places a grinding stone next to a printing block and sharpens the edges of the blade during work. Mastering the art of carving requires the ability to edge blades freely and it usually takes years to master this completely.
The beautiful Ukiyo-e prints that have attracted people around the world required not only the artist’s exquisite technique, but also excellent tools.
I saw traditional Japanese woodblock prints for the first time when I was 28 when working at a music store in Toronto, Canada. I was passing a small gallery when I saw a sign that read, “Japanese Woodblock Prints.” I saw Ukiyo-e prints from the Edo (1603-1868) and Meiji Periods (1868-1902) and they astonished me with their beauty.
I moved to Japan when I was 35 to study woodblock printing. While I was teaching English, I also worked reprinting old woodblock prints, including Ukiyo-e. In 1989, my third year in Japan, I started a 10-year reprinting project involving Nishiki Hyakunin Ishu Azuma Ori by Shunso Katsukawa, an Ukiyo-e printer in the Edo Period; and it was this that started me on the path to becoming a woodblock printer. I completed the 10-year project in 1998 and held an exhibition. Many people and media gathered to see my work.
Currently, while I am reprinting Ukiyo-e from the Edo and Meiji Periods, I am also creating original Ukiyo-e prints. It’s been four years since I started making woodblock prints based on pictures drawn by Jed Henry, an illustrator living in the U.S., as a series of Ukiyo-e Heroes. He made Ukiyo-e of well-known Japanese video game characters. The Ukiyo-e Heroes are an integration of Japanese pop culture and traditional woodblock prints. They are highly regarded overseas and are being ordered online by people in 60 countries around the world, including the U.S.
The essence of Ukiyo-e is present-day life. People creating Ukiyo-e in the Edo Period applied innovative techniques to express the trends and popular topics of the day. We also want to express new trends and culture in our work and expand the possibilities of Ukiyo-e and other traditional woodblock prints.
David Bull, Woodblock Printer, Owner of Mokuhankan and Seseragi Studio
• Born in England in 1951.
• Moved to Canada when he was 5 years old.
• When he was 28, he encountered traditional Japanese woodblock prints for the first time.
• In 1986, he moved to Japan.
• Between 1989 and 1998 he worked reprinting Nishiki Hyakunin Ishu Azuma Ori, old woodblock prints by Shunso Katsukawa an Ukiyo-e artist in the Edo Period and became well known.
• In 2014, he opened Mokuhankan in Asakusa. In cooperation with painters, woodblock artists and printers, he reprints old woodblock prints from the Edo Period and creates original Ukiyo-e.