When in 1853 Admiral Perry and what the Japanese called his “black fleet” (the ships were painted black and their coal-stoked engines puffed black smoke) sailed into Yokohoma Harbor, he couldn’t have known he’d be influencing the course of Western art. For over 200 years Japan and its grandest city, Edo (now Tokyo), had been virtually closed to outsiders, trading only with the Dutch and Chinese. Perry’s military force resulted in trade agreements: by 1858 Japan had finally opened up and its Ukiyo-e (“floating world”) art, which began circulating all over Europe, was beginning to change how Western artists represented physical reality.
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 house, lent itself especially to anecdotes of disclosure or nosiness. It draws us in and makes co-conspirators of us. Torii Kiyonga’s late-18th-century hashira-e (couple spying on a courtesan reading a love letter) from Chushingura, sweeps down from a samurai on a balcony who through a small hand-held mirror (we see Japanese writing reflected on the glass) is spying on a long scrolled letter being read by a courtesan on a porch below. Our eye naturally cascades down the stretched s of the narrow paper until it lands on a woman hidden under the porch holding the unfurled scroll so that she, too, can read its contents. The intimate letter is being checked out top to bottom.