Though many of you might already be familiar with ukiyo-e (“pictures of the floating world”), here is a little break-down and explanation of why this collection is so cool (and why everyone needs to come to the museum in person before the exhibit closes on September 1st).
Ukiyo-e are prints that were especially popular souvenirs from Edo (now Tokyo). They were carved wood blocks and those blocks were stamped on paper to create several copies of the same image, which is why there may be several existing originals of any particular print. They were popular for people visiting the big city because they were small and light and didn’t go bad like edible specialties, and although they varied quite a bit in price, they were usually quite reasonable and you could get them for a little more than the price of a bowl of soba noodles. They were so prolific that it was easy to send kids out on tasks to buy the newest prints of whatever it was you collected. Their content ranged from landscapes to Kabuki actors in various roles to grotesque illustrations of horror stories–within the medium, you could find whatever genre and style suited your tastes.
The prints were imposed mirror-image on to boards for carving, usually cherry tree wood, but different woods might be used for different levels of detail. There would be a board with the outlines, and as many boards for colors as there were colors in any given piece.
A very detailed piece, such as the one below, might require twenty different boards for stamping the various colors. Between each color you need to wait for it to dry. Therefore, it made sense to do these bulk so you had something to do while waiting between stampings on any given single print!
Note how bright the colors are. Ukiyo-e is a medium that fades fast, and international standards for preservation of art state that they must be displayed at 50 lux (compared to, say, 200 lux suggested for oil paintings). This means that ukiyo-e displays must be kept rather dark, but even then, continuous exposure is damaging. The Hiraki Ukiyo-e Foundation manages the print collection and their traveling temporary exhibits to make sure they preserved as possible while still doing exposed enough for their quality to be enjoyed.
One of the other qualities of the collection is the quality the prints had to begin with, even when the prints were still freshly mass-produced. When a new print was made, the artist would make it as well as possible to attract potential buyers. Production was market driven; if a particular print was not very popular they would stop producing it, but if a new print was very successful, they’d focus more on mass production since they felt assured of having buyers even if the quality was a bit lower. Hence, there were a lot of cheap copies available to ukiyo-e collectors, though the more copies there were, the more low-quality copies there were as well.
What makes an ukiyo-e low quality? Like any art that people get lazy with, errors like coloring outside the lines and less crisp lines are common, the variety of colors and details is usually lacking compared to the debut printings, and the quality of the materials used will probably be cheaper. I should know, as lazy art is my specialty as of late. By the way, it’s from lazy ukiyo-e that we get the Japanese phrase “kentouchigai” for misdirection a wrong guess–it refers to the guiding points of the wood block (kentou) not lining up with illustration correctly, thus resulting in colors that are stamped in incorrect places.
The Hiraki collection, however, is composed of the top quality early printings, when the art was braving against the whims of consumerism, elbowing its way through the crowded print market to shine and claim the eyes of passers-by. In fact, many of the pieces in the collection are designated as national Important Cultural Properties or Important Works of Fine Art.
So pretty works of art, yes, one can always find art in books or on the internet. While bother looking at the originals? Because you can’t see the karazuri without seeing the originals, that’s why!
Although I’ve been somewhat familiar with ukiyo-e for many years, I only learned about this when I visited the exhibit. Karazuri is a pattern that is pressed into the paper which physically adds depth to the area it affects, but you can only detect it when looking at it in 3D as opposed to 2D. The rise and fall of the paper is delicate but measured, and pieces with clear examples of it are very rare. For example, the piece on the poster for the exhibit, Utagawa Toyokuni I’s “Portraits of Actors on Stage–Masatsuyu” has a rather surprisingly elegant-looking loin cloth.
One of my other favorite examples of 3D effects from textured paper is of a snowy scene–the stark rise and faded fall of the paper make the paper look shimmery and ethereally fluffy like real snow. Although ukiyo-e may have a reputation for being unconfined by realism or rather sparse on details, many of my favorite works in the collect refute both of these ideas.
While speaking of content in general, I have discovered that I am a big fan of Isoda Koryusai‘s bird-in-parlor-room series, and works like Ishikawa Toyonobu‘s portrait of a young beauty hanging poems on a cherry tree in full bloom certainly looks, to my eyes, like it deserves its status as Important Cultural Property.
This page is in Japanese, but you can see a few more examples of the feature works of the collection. Just bear in mind that this is a very small taste of the variety of the exhibit (it covers ukiyo-e of many different styles and methods and time periods), and they are really, really pretty prints to stare at in person.
…and I suppose it has me inspired to try to be a little less lazy with my art.