Ukiyo-e literally means “paintings of the floating world”. Ukiyo-e is a Japanese art genre that was produced during the Edo period (1600-1868). During more than 200 years Japan was sealed to any foreign influence, but the life in the cities was completely centered around the pleasures of life and art. Ukiyo-e art was mass-produced using woodblock printing techniques. Depending on the popularity of the artist more or less units of the paintings were produced and afterwards the original prints were destroyed to make sure that the buyers had something unique.
Ukiyo-e engravings usually represent the typical scenes from that time: Kabuki theater, geisha portraits, samurais, sumo fighters, people traveling along the Tokaido road (from Kyoto to Edo/Tokyo), rice harvesting with mount Fuji on the horizon…
The Great Wave off Kanagawa by Hokusai
Two of the most famous ukiyo-e artists are Hiroshige and Hokusai, who worked creating thousands of original ukiyo-e prints at the beginning of the 19th century. Moreover, thanks to how easy it was to make multiple copies, ukiyo-e paintings arrived to the western world and influenced painters of that time like Van Gogh or Claude Monet.
It is said that Hokusai created more than 30,000 original works of art, however he is mostly famous for his Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji, a series of paintings that portray the daily life of the people of the time with mount Fuji on the horizon. However, maybe he gained more popularity by his 1814 work Hokusai Manga, a series of caricatures and humorous paintings that are considered the origin of today’s Japanese manga, which is known all around the world.
Apart from landscape scenes, theater depictions, portraits, etc. Some artists started to use the same technique to mass-produce engravings of explicit sex scenes. This kind of erotic art is known as shunga, and is considered to be one of the first pornographic productions in history. Nowadays erotic engraving are not very common, however erotic manga, known as hentai, shares certain similarities with traditional shunga.
Otani Oniji II by Sharaku.
If you come to Japan one of the best places to enjoy ukiyo-e art is the Ota Memorial Museum of Art located near Harajuku station.
Websites about Ukiyo-e: