Varieties of Subject Matter in Ukiyo-e Prints The Japanese woodblock print has been one of the more fascinating aspects of Japanese aesthetic expression to western culture. Ukiyo originally was the Buddhist term "for the fleeting secular world in contrast with the spiritual reality of Buddhism" (Munsterberg 16) though in the Edo period the term was appropriated to designate in particular the red-light pleasure district of Edo, the Yoshiwara. This "floating world of pleasure and amusement, often of an erotic type" was the setting for a large number of ukiyo-e prints. (Munsterberg 16). Ukiyo-e prints in particular emphasized three primary subjects; the depiction of women and actors, genre scenes of daily Japanese life, and the depiction of nature. This range of subjects is represented by the "six great masters" of the ukiyo-e tradition, and formed the aesthetic foundation of Japanese printmaking for the next two hundred years.
The depiction of the women and actors of the floating world was the most predominant subject matter among the six great masters of the ukiyo-e print. Kitagawa Utamuro, Suzuki Harunobu, and Torii Kiyonaga were all interested in particular in the depiction of women in the floating world. Each of the three artists whose primary subjects were women portrayed them in a unique style peculiar to their own aesthetic sensibilities, though Utamuro is generally acknowledged to be "the greatest artist of womanhood" (Paine 266). Utamuro particularly excelled in his portrayal of erotic subject matter; it has been said that he is "probably the greatest master of this genre in the entire history of the Japanese print. This however was not the only aspect of womanhood he portrayed. Utamuro's women have been said to be more a vision of the artist's notion of ideal beauty than of the beauty of any particular women he painted; he portrayed women "beautiful as types rather than as individuals" (Paine 266).
The vision of ideal beauty which Utamuro's women exhibited was "unlike the typical Japanese girl of the times", women who were "tall and slender" and who were "well aware of their erotic appeal and elegant beauty, which exercised such a fascination over men" (Munsterberg 89). The print "Mother and Child" was one of Utamuro's non-erotic prints genre where he portrays the delicate relationship between mother and child. Robert Paine describes his ability such that "nor has any other Japanese artist handled the tender relationship of mothers and babies so ably and yet without sentimentality" (Paine 267). Suzuki Harunobu the youngest of the six great masters; his women were characterized by "graceful, delicate, willowy beauty" (Munsterberg 49). His prints have been described as containing a "poetic mood" as well as "sheer delicacy and charm" (Munsterberg 50). This is especially evident in the print "Girl on a Temple Stairs Performing an O-Hya kudo Dance" where the lyricism and delicacy of Harunobu's women is evident, as well as the "interplay of a curving figure against straight lines" (Paine 265).
Torii Kiyonaga is another of the great masters whose primary subject was the portrayal of women. Kiyonaga "depicted tall, stately women who by Victorian writers like Fenellosa were compared to Greek goddesses" (Munsterberg 80-1). His style "combined realism and idealism, producing a simple grandeur and perfection" (Munsterberg 80). Like all of the great masters his women were idealistically portrayed, which perhaps may be attributed to the sense of unreality in the floating world. These characteristics are especially evident in the print "The Wind" (c. 1780) in the has hira-e style (Takahashi 79).
The verticality and simplistic, emotionally neutral beauty of the woman is characteristic of the comparison people have made between Greek goddesses and Kiyonaga's women. Along with the emphasis on the women of the floating world, the kabuki actors who inhabited the Yoshiwara were a subject which was explored by the great masters of ukiyo-e printing. The prints, called yak usha-e (Takahashi 97), were the focus in particular of the great master Toshusai Sharaku. Unlike the masters of ukiyo-e printing who focused on their attentions on women subjects, Sharaku doesn't idealize his subjects; he is a staunch realist. His portrayals of the actors of kabuki theater "showing the actor as he actually looked rather than being an idealized portrait of him, they have a truthfulness and psychological depth not usually found in Japanese art" (Munsterberg 101). His portrayal of the actors "without their usual idealized glamour" (Munsterberg 101) angered the public, and "this may have been the reason why these prints did not enjoy the same popularity as did the very idealized portrayals of courtesans that Utamuro was producing at the same time" (Munsterberg 102).
His print "The Actor Otani Oni ji III" is striking for its depiction of psychological depth, in particular anger, which was not often depicted in Japanese art. Genre scenes were another important subject matter among the great masters of ukiyo-e printing, particularly in the work of Katsushika Hokusai. Though Hokusai created a large number of landscape prints, his emphasis was always on the relationship of man and nature Hugo Munsterberg writes that: Hokusai mirrors the entire world of contemporary Japan drawn in a very spirited, informal manner with a wonderful use of line. The emphasis is on the people shown in all kinds of occupations and positions: working and sleeping, wrestling, fighting and making love, elegant ladies and poor beggars, ordinary laborers and farmers, as well as ghosts and grotesque monsters.
In addition there are landscapes and buildings, birds and animals, flowers and trees, as well as scenes from history and legend- a whole encyclopedia of Japan in the Edo period (Munsterberg 113). His print "Fugi from a Lumberyard" from Thirty Six Views of Fuji (c. 1825) combines a narrative description of Japanese life while at the same time, with the presence of Mount Fugi, emphasizes the distinctively Japanese nature of the scene. Nature also was a theme of ukiyo-e printmaking which was represented by the great masters, in particular, Ichiryusai Hiroshige.
In contrast with Hokusai, who was more interested in the human activity taking place in his pictures than in the aspects of nature, Hiroshige was primarily concerned with the impressions he got from the landscape at various times of the year (121). Hiroshige is generally credited with (along with Hokusai) reestablishing the traditional focus of Japanese aesthetics as one based upon an appreciation of the natural world. In his print "Sudden Shower at Ohashi" from One Hundred Views of Edo (c. 1857) Hiroshige captures the sensitivity and lyrical quality of the Japanese view of nature.
"No one up to that time had ever brought the scenery of Japan the sensitivity and poetic temperament of this artist" (Munsterberg 122). Unlike Hokusai, whose paintings of the natural world were more concerned still with man as the focus of the print, Hiroshige fully restores nature as the focal point of Japanese aesthetics. When people appear in Hiroshige's works, such as in "Sudden Shower at Ohashi," they are in harmony with nature rather than struggling against it, despite what might often be thought of as adverse conditions. The variety and sophistication of Japanese woodblock prints has made them one of the most popular and treasured forms of Japanese aesthetic expression, particularly in western culture, where the prints have been seen to nearly epitomize the Japanese sensibility.
Munsterberg, Hugo. The Japanese Print. New York: Weatherhill, 1991. Pine, Robert Treat, Soper, Alexander. The Art and Architecture of Japan.
Hong Kong: Penguin, 1958. Takahashi, Sei ichiro, tr. by Richard Stanley Baker. Traditional Woodblock Prints of Japan.
New York: Weatherhill, 1973.