Taking A Closer Look: Ukiyo-e

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As an Intern here at the Gregg, I recently discovered a collection of beautiful ukiyo-e prints by Toyokuni Utagawa lll while interacting with the database of prolific works belonging to the museum. With a profound interest in Japanese art and culture, I felt others should know a little about these stunning works.

Japanese wood block print making, or ukiyo-e, is a famous and beautiful art form that heavily influenced artists such as Vincent Van Gogh and Henri Matisse. Ukiyo-e means “images from the floating isle,” which is a direct reference to the Japanese idea of the Floating World—a place where pleasure and freedom coexist and where one can drink tea, enjoy the company of courtesans, and delight in the entertainment of theatre. Kabuki, or Japanese theatre, was a popular subject for many ukiyo-e artists. These alluring portrayals of heroes and tales,especially of the samurai warriors,were highly popular during the Edo period (1615-1867).

Ukiyo-e prints were usually done by three collaborators: the artist (who designed and painted the images on the wood blocks), the carver (who made individual relief carvings for each separate color), and the publisher (who inked and printed the blocks to buildup the images). It is a very intensive process done on paper called Honsho, which is made from the mulberry tree. It soft enough to absorb the ink but strong enough to withstand up to 10 layers of printing.

Toyokuni Utagawa lll (1786-1865) is praised for being one of the most popular ukiyo-e artists of the 19th century. He made his name with a series of wood prints that highlighted the beauty of the female form. Originally named Kunisada, the influential artist took the name of Toyokuni l, his teacher and the founder of the Utagawa School. In 1995 70 examples of Toyokuni lll’s work were given to the Gregg Museum. Superb to behold, they truly embody the drama and legend of Japanese culture through their depictions of the world of kabuki.

Sasha A. Campbell
North Carolina State University
Humanities and Social Science, Art Applications/International Studies
Intern for the Gregg Museum
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