Literary and pictorial play in the glittering world of Ukiyo-e

If Ukiyo-e was to be personified as a person I think “the girl with the kaleidoscope eyes” would be a perfect fit. The poetry of John Lennon painted the picture of a captivating woman with a sparkling disposition. His compelling portrait leaves us wanting to be in her presence if only for a few minutes. It parallels the desire to jump through the picture plane of an Ukiyo-e picture into the thriving metropolis of Edo and experience the floating, fleeting world for oneself.

The alluring pictorial character of Japanese art from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was idiosyncratic. Content, function and stylistic convention governed how this pictorial character earned its distinction, primarily through the woodblock print. Like ‘Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds’, artists and audiences communicated using art as the means to a conversation, a conversation still in play today. This discussion heavily relies on the socio-cultural context of the time in both the process of creation and the viewer’s act of contemplation.

Picture yourself in a boat on a river, With tangerine trees and marmalade skies.

One Hundred Views of Mount Fuji (Fugaku hyakkei)
1834; 1835; ca. 1849, Katsushika Hokusai (Japanese, Tokyo (Edo) 1760–1849 Tokyo (Edo). Photo:

What is the contribution of content and subject to the pictorial character of Ukiyo-e? It is the mode of transportation from the visual to the literary, the antithesis of song lyrics. It is what we directly associate with the historical idea of the floating world which the artists set out to depict. Katsuchika Hokusai’s ‘One Hundred views of Mount Fuji’ are even classed as physical artifacts. A life full of leisure, entertainment and consumerism is articulated by the likes of Ando Hiroshige in his 1856 series ‘One Hundred Famous Views of Edo.’

Pleasure quarters, geisha, courtesans, busy streets, Sumiyoshi dancers, onna-dayu female street minstrels and the general lifestyle of the chonin class is exhibited in print number 44, ‘View of Nihonbashi.’ The artist said of the series in 1850, “I intend above all to depict accurately (shashin) the famous areas of Edo… and to draw landscapes such as one would see them with one’s own eyes.”

View of Nihonbashi Tôri 1-chôme (Nihonbashi Tôri-itchôme ryakuzu), from the series One Hundred Famous Views of Edo (Meisho Edo hyakkei), 1858, Utagawa Hiroshige I. Photo:

Scenes of industry, trade and enterprise are signified by the construction of bridges, the inclusion of markets, and the bustling streets of merchants. Here we see dynamic social change, a thriving metropolis as exhibited in ‘Temma Bridge In Settsu Province.’ Hokusai set out to maintain a political statement of stability following a period of destruction to the people of Japan. By illustrating the world of prospering industry, he sent a message to Edo of economic security presenting harmony, peace and unity under Tokugawa. The people sought freedom from this control in the pleasure-making that money could buy. The socio-cultural context of Edo is directly referenced in the use of subject matter as the content Ukiyo-e artists drew on was from within the social, political and cultural environment in which it survived.

Just as the Imagery of Lucy was inspired by that of Alice In Wonderland, Ukiyo-e prints looked to Japanese literature for subject. Edo was an increasingly literate society where the reading of books and poetry were both an exercise of leisure and intellect. ‘Ise monogatari’ was widely appreciated and reflected in the woodblock prints of Hon’amie Keoetsu and Hishikawa Moronobu. Using contemporary pictorial conventions the artists, woodcutters and printers brought the world of letters and words into the visual, the practice of ehon. Line, perspective and design were the formal practices employed to present space, form and interaction generating a sense of reality. The popularity of the texts meant the audience would have been familiar with the narrative of Ise.

Ise monogatari (Tales of Ise),
1608–1610, Hon’amie Keoetsu. Photo:

The division of compositions with line suggests a sequence of events, observed with the use of fukinauki yatai, bird’s eye perspective. Two of the figures appear to be lavishly dressed suggesting their high social status. The overall understanding is a distinctly Japanese one depicting scenes from Japanese life for a Japanese audience. It played a major role in the development and circulation of popular literature due to its accessible nature, simple subject and formal stylistic characteristics for ease of interpretation.

Senjafuda, prayer image woodblock prints were part of didactic acts of devotion. They proliferated from the ninth century, closely linked to the arrival of Buddhism. They were sold at temples and shrines for only a few cents to raise funds or to serve the purpose of a souvenir. They literally translate to ‘thousand shrine tags’ following the popular belief that visiting the shrines a thousand times would bring good luck. It is somewhat similar to the traditions of traveling visitors to Scotland who pressed a coin into the ‘Wishing Tree of Argyll’ each coin a votive offering. These works composed of era woodblock print containing Japanese styled characters printed onto a strip of paper. They are short and easily understood due to the format and content. The prints act as a voyeur for the viewer to access a spiritual realm, use of this tangible item will lead them to a better life. Here we observe how function dictates both content and utility.

Combined God of the Twelve Months (Jûni tsuki wagôjin), 1830s, Utagawa Kuniyoshi. Photo:

Another function of Ukiyo-e was to promote. Actors of the kabuki theatre too gave subject for the woodblock prints. They sought publicity through this avenue printed predominantly by the Torii school. The ease of access to the art forms known as yakushae, aided the crystallization of the pictorial character of Ukiyo-e by reaching a wide audience. This enforced the contemporary ways of representing the three dimensional world on a flat plane. The artist’s skill in rendering emotion, atmosphere and mood was of primary importance to the way the viewer read the work. Audiences were able to readily identify human emotion through a few simple characteristics.

Looking at Katsukawa Shūnei’s print ‘Ichikawa Ebizo as Kamakura Gonogoro Kagemasa and Sakata Hangoro III as Hahazuno Yotahei,’ what can we read from the expression on Ebizo’s face? The angle of the eye line and eyebrow as a response to the way facial muscles tense when in a state of anger. The eyes are crossed presenting the herami stare - a moment of such fury the character almost loses complete control of himself allowing his eyeballs to roll inward. Finally the use of the colour red directly symbolizes rage. The pictorial rules or conventions Ukiyo-e artists used to present these emotions were the wide spread and accepted practices employed by artists and schools alike. It is in the rendering of expression we can closely track the conversation between artist and viewer, the act of communication executed in visual terms.

Ichikawa Ebizo as Kamakura Gonogoro Kagemasa and Sakata Hangoro III as Hahazuno Yotahei, Katsukawa Shūnei. Photo:

The Beatles were both inspired and informed by the swinging sixties but, as some people would say, the sixties were informed and inspired by the Beatles. This enigma is also true for the pictorial character of Ukiyo-e. While the subjects, functions and styles were contrived and constructed as a response to the floating world, it was eighteenth and nineteenth century Edo that fortified and embraced Ukiyo-e. The unique pictorial character was supported by the dress, attitudes, leisure activities and general lifestyle choices of the middle class artisans and merchants. This formed a distinctive local culture, one of Ukiyo:

“Living only for the moment, turning our full attention to the pleasure of the moon, the snow, the cherry-blossoms and the maple-leaves, singing songs, drinking wine, and diverting ourselves just in floating, floating.”

While the pleasure quarters of Yoshiwara were less glamorous toward the end of the Tokogawa period, the middle-class lived the high-rolling lifestyle their parents could not, the perfect time for an artistic revolution. The works of Andy Warhol find their worth in the way he presented modern society on the canvas, whether that be in celebrity figures or mundane objects. They were simple works that appealed to the middle-class looking for a particular lifestyle of glamour, liberation and the New. The success and crystallisation of Ukiyo-e should not only be attributed to the skill of the artists, printmakers and promoters in producing the works, but also the attitudes of acceptance by the contemporary audiences like those who supported the Pop movement.

John Lennon, 1985–1986, Andy Warhol. Photo:

The success of the Ukiyo-e pictorial character is reflected in its international reach. After viewing an exhibition at Durand’s gallery, Pissaro wrote in 1893:

“The Japanese exhibition is magnificent: Hiroshige is a wonderful Impressionist. Monet, Rodin and I are enthusiastic. How glad I am to have painted the effects of snow and floods. These Japanese artists have confirmed me in our visual judgement.”

In the art made and circulated in Edo, then later the world, we can find not only the formation of a distinct pictorial character but we see a national identity materialise. The pictures were heavily conditioned by the unique socio-cultural context of Edo especially in subject, but life in eighteenth and nineteenth century Edo relied heavily on the rising popularity of Ukiyo-e images and their important place in Japanese art history.


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Essays and memoirs about little wonders