Historical Context of Woodblock Prints

The term ukiyo-e, meaning 'pictures of a floating world,' is a pun on a Buddhist phrase meaning 'suffering world,' also pronounced ukiyo. A novelist of the time defined the attitudes of the irresponsible but delicious floating world as

. . .living just for the moment, focusing on the pleasure given by the moon, the snow, cherry blossoms, maple leaves, singing songs, drinking wine, diverting ourselves by just floating, floating, ignoring the pauperism that stares us in the face, refusing to be disheartened, floating like a gourd that drifts along with the river- this is what we call ukiyo.

The Kabuki theater dominated the minds much as television does today. Here performance not plot was key and actors had great followings. Publishers would compete to be the first to issue prints of a particular performance- artists would be sketching as actors performed with engravers and printers standing by.  Woodblock prints of courtesans were much cheaper than a brothel visit and functioned as posters do today. Up to the mid-nineteenth century, a print could be bought for the same price as a bowl of noodles.

Imagine then the jolt to the artistic community when in 1842 prints depicting actors and courtesans were banned by the government. The number of colors used in clothing and art were restricted. This was part of an overall effort to limit the conspicuous consumption of the urban population by a shogunate increasingly unable to maintain an effective administration.

In 1855 an earthquake destroys large part of Edo. Added to the country's economic difficulties, was the shattering of two centuries of government-decreed isolation by unsolicited arrival of American "black ships." Commercial treaties were forced on an unwilling government by the western powers and establishment of a foreign community of traders and diplomats. In 1863 American ships were fired on provoking a full-scale naval engagement in which the Japanese were defeated. Runaway inflation and periodic crop failures ravaged the 1860's and life was difficult in both the cities and the countryside.

In 1868, the antishogunate forces gained control and proclaimed an imperial restoration, the Meiji (enlightened rule) Restoration. In 1869, the emperor and the capitol were moved from Kyoto to Edo which was renamed Tokyo. The dismantling of the traditional feudal system began. Commoners could own land and compulsory primary education was established. The first railway appeared in 1872. The country began to look outward and a policy of expansionism soon emerged. Contact with the west was the beginning of the end for the traditional Japanese print. People were more interested in absorbing the new sciences and technology than preserving traditional arts. And the print could not compete with the onslaught of photography.   SiteMap  

Abstracted from Yoshitoshi's One Hundred Aspects of the Moon, John Stevenson, 1992 and The Art of Japanese Prints, Nigel Cawthorne, Hamlyn, 1997