Ukiyo-e - Japanenese woodblock prints

Michael Organ

Introduction

Japanese woodblock prints from the late 18th century through to the early 20th century were a highly developed popular artform which was a marked influence onwestern art movements such as Impressionism from the 1870s. Referred to by the general term ukiyo-e - or prints of the "Floating World" - they primarily featured beautiful things, including landscapes, courtesans and actors, though a wide variety of subjects were applied to woodblocks, including scientific specimens and maps. The range of ukiyo-e gradually extended into topical items, mythological events and elements of the natural world such as flora and fauna. International collectors, following the opening up of Japan to foreign trade in 1853, included artists such as Vincent van Gogh, Edouard Manet and Pablo Picasso. A large body of literature has developed around the genre and associated erotic prints known as shunga. This webpage lists items from the collection of Michael Organ. All items are orignal woodblock prints, or reprints using traditional woodblock techniques, unless otherwise noted.

  1. Utagawa Hiroshige, Kuwana, print from the series: 53 Stations of the Tokaido, 1831-4 [reprint]
  2. Hokusai, Kurika-fudou (Dragon Fuduo consuming the sword Kurikawa), 1849
  3. Hiroshige II, Courtesans, circa 1850
  4. Adashi Gekko, Buddha being thrown into the river, 1885
  5. Kokunimasa, Sino-Japanese war triptych, circa 1894
  6. Ogata Ginko, Jigoku Dayu talking to Priest Ikkyu, 1898

1. Utagawa Hiroshige (1797-1858), Kuwana, coloured woodblock print 1831-4 [reprint 1970s], 7 5/8" x 11 3/4". Series: Fifty-three Stations of the Tokaido (1832-5). Size: Oban yokoye. Edition: Hoeido. Publisher: Takenouchi Magohachi. The 1970s reprint is taken from a recarved woodblock using traditional printing methods.

According to the Hiroshige website and additional resources, this is a view of two large junks moored at the mouth of the Kiso River, on Ise Bay south of Tokyo, and of others sailing away to sea, with Kuwana castle in the background on the right. To avoid crossing the numerous rivers flowing inland between Miya and Kuwana, travellers made their journey by boat. The trip was reputed to have been enjoyable. Kuwana was also a port town and a strategic point for transportation by both sea and land. It was one of the major way stations of the Tokaido, as well as a principle market-place for rice and various goods produced in the surrounding region.

Kuwana castle was destroyed in the civil war of 1868, though its two-storey turret house has been rebuilt close by and the remains of the castle have been preserved as a mound.

In 1832, Hiroshige first travelled from his home in Edo (Tokyo) to Kyoto along the Tokaido road. The journey was an eye opening and life changing experience for him. As an urban man of Edo he had experienced life mainly in the capital. Hiroshige immediately returned to Edo after the trip and began his masterwork woodblock series from the sketches made on the journey through mountain and along the coast.


2. Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849), Kurikara-fudou (Deity dragon Fudou eating the devil-subduing sword Kurikara), woodblock print, 1849, 6 1/2" x 9 1/2" (15.5 x 22.5 cm). From Hokusai's Manga, volume 13, 1849, plate 2. Coloured with grey and flesh coloured ink. The Manga volumes have been reprinted on a number of occasions.

Hokusai's aged dragon is seen floating in the sky above a mountain, with its body wrapped tightly around the sword. Fudo Myo-o is a Buddhist deity who converts anger into salvation and has a furious glaring face. A variant involves the deity in the form of a dragon, consuming the powerful devil-slaying sword known by the name Kurikara.

Japanese dragons are distinguished from Chinese dragons by their 3 claws and long, snake-like body. The Chinese dragon has 5 claws and, though similarly snake-like, is more aerial. Examples of the unique Japanese dragon can be seen in modern Studio Ghibli anime features Spirited Away and Howl's Moving Castle, wherein humans transform into flying dragons.

Volume 13 of Hokusai's Manga appeared shortly after his death in 1849, having been compiled during the final months of his life. The Manga was a hugely popular series whose first volume appeared in 1814. It comprised sketches of a variety of subjects, from landscape through to flora and fauna, humans, buildings and mythological creatures such as dragons. This richly detailed drawing by Hokusai is one of his finest dragon portraits, a subject the artist returned to on an number of occasions, both within the Manga series and through individual, full coloured prints. Perhaps Hokusai's most famous dragon is the print featuring a  bold red  background, with a golden dragon in the centre surrounded by the blue and white breaking waves which are a feature of the most famous ukiyo-e print of all - Hokusai's Great Wave.


3. Utagawa Hiroshige II (1826-1869), Courtesans, oban woodblock print, 9 1/2" x 14 1/2", circa 1850s. Hiroshige II was the principal student of the more famous woodblock artists Hiroshige.

This print depicts the procession of a courtesan or bride followed by her five retainers, walking with umbrellas raided.

The print is heavily faded due to its age. No precise details of this work are known, though it is possible that it is from the first published series by Hiroshige II, entitled 'List of Beauties of Edo' from 1849-50.

The Hiroshige II website (www.hiroshigeii.net) containes a catalogue raisonne of his works and is a useful source on the artist.


4. Adashi Ginko (1874-1897), Threw out Buddha - Abbreviated Japanese History, coloured woodblock print, 12 7/8" x 8 3/4" (17.5 x 24 cm), 1885. Series: Dai Nihon Shi Ryaku Zue (Pictures of Abbreviated Japanese History), plate No. 7. Format: Chuban.

This print shows Mononobe no Moriya Ohmuraji and compatriates throwing Buddhist statues into a river because they believed the Japanese had their own Shinto religion and did not need to warship the foreign deity. Buddhism had been introduced into Japan in the 6th century and was supported by the Emperor Yomei and the Soga clan, which were the enemy of the Mononobe. Moriya was defeated at the battle of Kisuri in 587 and following his death Buddhism spread further though Japan. Eventually a mixture of Buddhism and Shinto was settled upon. The story in Japanese is printed on the backside of the print.


5. Kokunimasa Utagawa (1874 - 1944), Japanese attack on a fortress, Sino-Japanese war, coloured woodblock triptych print, 27 1/2" x 14 1/4", 1894-5.

The print shows a dramatic scene from the Sino-Japanese War of a great explosion during an attack on a fortress. Red flames and clouds of smoke and debris billow from the gaping wall, sending the enemy - Chinese dressed in blue robes - tumbling through the air. Japanese soldiers - dressed in black jackets with black and yellow trimmed caps - watch from the right as the red traces of bullets fly past them, waiting for the moment to rush in. A fallen enemy lies on the ground before them.


5. Ogata Gekko (1859-1920), Gekko's Essay - Lady of Hell (Jigoku Dayu talking to Priest Ikkyu), woodblock print - Oban tate-e, 1898, signed 'Gekko' + artist's seal, image size 8 3/4"  x 12 7/8" (print size 25 x 37.5 cm). Publisher: Matsuki Heikichi. The left cartouche and robe of the priest are embossed; the print also contains silver metal pigments. From the series "Gekko Zuihitsu" ("Gekko's Essay").

This print tells the story of the beautiful courtesan Jigoku Dayu ("Madam from Hell") and her encounter with the famous Zen Buddhist monk and poet Ikkyu (1394-1481) who claimed to be the son of the emperor of Japan, Go-Komatsu and was abbott of Daitokuji Temple in Kyoto. Ikkyu walked about each New Year holding a staff with a skull attached to remind revelers of the inevitability of death. He would also pose puzzling questions to those he encountered.

Jikodu Dayu was the daughter of a samurai who had been captured by his enemies and sold to a brothel. Ikkyu frequented such places and befriended the young woman in the brothels of Sakai, near Osaka. Ikkyu enlightened the young courtesan as to the evils of her profession and they traded poems. He eventually converted her to religious life and gave her a literary education.

The seated young beauty is elegantly regal, wearing a traditional monk's mantle over a kimono patterned with a demon and scenes of hell (Jigoku), including a cauldron where the souls of sinners are reduced to mortor. Jigoku Dayu features in a number of ukiyo-e prints, by artists such as Kunisada II, Kuniyoshi, Chikanobu Toyohara (1886) and Tsukioka Yoshitoshi (1890). Her name consists of Jigoku (hell), a term for the lowest form of unlicensed prostitute and dayu (respect) for a courtesan of the highest rank. Prints often feature her surrounded by skeletons and spectres of deceased courtesans.


6. Tomikichiro Tokuriki (1859-1920), Mount Fuji, woodblock print - 28 x 41 cm, circa 1945. Printed by Uchida.

This print was purchased in Japan around 1945 by my uncle Jack Crutchley whilst he was stationed there as a member of the Australian contingent of the BCOF - British Commonwealth Occupation Forces.


Site last updated: 30 October 2012. Return to Michael Organ's Home Page. Any comments, corrections, or additions to this site are most welcome.