A Succinct Guide to Understanding Ukiyo-e Prints

Martha Chaiklin

Ukiyo-e prints have shaped Western perceptions of Japan and Japanese art since they were first exhibited in Paris at the Exposition Universelle in 1867. Their impact on decorative and fine arts of the late 19th century is well documented, and interest in them has remained high ever since. Of the scores of books that have been produced about ukiyo-e in the ensuing century and a half or so, many focus on a single artist or provide a survey based on artist genealogies and categorization by school, technique, or subject matter. In contrast, Julie Nelson Davis offers a guide to understanding ukiyo-e as part of Japanese culture and society by embracing the entire genre of books and paintings, eschewing the Western-constructed framework that emphasizes single-sheet prints. It is an introductory text, intended to be “a concise critical inquiry into the genre’s formation, history, production and reception in early modern Japan” (p. 3).

This emphasis on context is well within current academic trends and has been examined in works such as The Commercial and Cultural Climate of Japanese Printmaking, or even in Davis’s own earlier work, Partners in Print: Artistic Collaboration and the Ukiyo-e Market. The advantage this volume offers over these and similar works is price point (it is significantly cheaper), succinctness, and accessibility. It reads as a distillation of the author’s years of teaching, and she graciously thanks her students in the acknowledgements. The concepts are laid out clearly, without reliance on jargon, and complex ideas are reduced to their essence. Yet it is these same qualities that make this book a useful resource not just for those who are approaching ukiyo-e for the first time, but also for those who seek to broaden their knowledge or understand current academic trends and interpretations of this genre. The premise of the book is context, but formal analysis of artwork is not absent either, and the examples provided will introduce readers unfamiliar with this process to its value.

In keeping with her stated purpose of expanding the boundaries beyond Western categorizations of ukiyo-e, Davis looks at several under-discussed features of the ukiyo-e genre. For example, the incorporation of shunga, or erotic prints, into a holistic discussion is a notable feature of this book. This genre is commonly quickly glossed over or relegated to separate volumes rather than examined as the integral part of Japanese print history that it is. Similarly, Davis emphasizes the collaboration between designer, carver, printer, publisher, and patron necessary to produce the prints. While insisting that ukiyo-e were appreciated as “art” and that their purported use as wrapping paper is a myth, she does not shy away from noting that prints were a profit-making venture and that publishers were not above including product placement or featuring actors or locations in exchange for sponsorship.

The emphasis of the text is thematic, but the book proceeds in a general historical arc from inception, where Davis examines the establishment of a canon and explains why Hishikawa Moronobu (1618-1694) marks the start of this art form (Chapter 1), to the Hokusai and Hiroshige landscapes of the 19th century in Chapter 4. In the Epilogue, Yokohama prints, Kawanabe Kyōsai (1831-1889), and other Meiji artists discussed, as are later trends, including brief discussions of sosaku and shin-hanga. This extension is in part to emphasize the fact that ukiyo-e did not suddenly die with the arrival of Matthew Perry in 1853, and also to acknowledge that more research needs to be done both in areas that have been explored and those that have been under-explored.

The first and last images of the book are of Katsushika Hokusai’s Under the Wave off Kanagawa, perhaps the most famous and ubiquitous of all ukiyo-e prints. The image, popularly known as The Great Wave, appears in its original print format in the beginning, and at the end, on the back face of a recently minted 1000 yen note. The significance of this image, as Davis acknowledges, has been explored by Christine Guth in Hokusai’s Wave: Biography of a Global Icon. Nevertheless, The Great Wave is deftly employed as a device to encourage the reader to see familiar art in new ways. In the Introduction, Davis notes how the image is taken out of context by being separated from the series of views of Mt. Fuji for which it was created, and that it is not as popular as Red Fuji – or, more properly, Fine Wind, Clear Weather – in Japan. She explains that we have different reactions in part because we “read” these prints right to left, while in Japan contemporaries would have looked left to right. The return to The Great Wave in the Epilogue as currency “demonstrates the place of ukiyo-e in our contemporary world” (p. 171), suggesting that even in Japan, the place and appreciation of ukiyo-e is ever-changing and evolving. This is part of Davis’s greater challenge to the standard ukiyo-e canon and the value of looking beyond its boundaries.