Literally translated as “pictures of the floating world,” Ukiyo-e emerged from the hedonistic opulence of Japan’s Edo period (1603-1868). Embraced by the country’s newly urbanized, emerging middle class, these woodblock prints were essentially art for the mass market (similar to modern-day posters) and deserve credit for much of the West’s early exposure to Japanese art during the late 19th century. Europe’s fascination with Japan in the 19th century left an indelible mark on Western art; the Japonisme of artists from Degas and Monet, to Van Gogh and Toulouse-Lautrec takes its cues from the color palette, compositions, and subject matter that were typical to these Japanese prints. This fall, New York’s Ronin Gallery traces Ukiyo-e back to its roots and follows its path within Japan through the work of 40 prominent Japanese artists.
Celebrating its 40th anniversary, the family-run Ronin Gallery has been exhibiting and dealing Japanese prints since 1975, when they began operating out of the Explorers Club Mansion on Madison Avenue. Titled “40 for 40: Forty Masterpieces Celebrating Forty Years,” the show covers the evolution of Japanese woodblock prints through a spectacular collection spanning from 1680 through 1988, from early Ukiyo-e works to contemporary iterations on the historic technique.
Starting with the black-and-white prints of the earliest Ukiyo-e masters, the show ranges thematically from classic images of Japanese geishas and courtesans (such as Kitagawa Utamaro’s Courtesan Hisui from Ogiya, 1798), to Kabuki actors and sumo wrestlers who were the celebrities of the day. Meanwhile, dreamlike landscapes, like Utagawa Hiroshige’s Plum Garden at Kamaeido (1857), and Katsushika Hokusai’s Inume Pass in Kai Province (1830), or his iconic The Great Wave of Kanagawa, ca. 1829–1833, immortalized in art history textbooks and as an emoji, were more dependent on the artist’s imagination than strict observations of nature. Series of flora, fauna (often birds), and even travel themes were also commonly represented.
Shunga was a category of erotic woodblock prints, ranging from tender moments of embrace to sexually explicit scenarios. These works, like Okumura Masanobu’s Happy Dreams (ca. 1680), held none of the stigmas that western cultures would have assigned to them, and were produced by some of the most prominent Ukiyo-e artists.
To create the woodblock prints, artists designed the image then collaborated with a team of artisans who would hand-carve the multiple cherry blocks needed to produce the various layers of color contained within a work. Prints on display from the 20th century were crafted from these same traditional techniques and often explore updated versions of similar themes. Take for example the delicately beautiful Woman Combing Her Hair (1936) by Ito Shinsui, or Kiyoshi Saito’s abstract, textured Bizen (1966). This stunning selection represents nearly three centuries of Japanese art, yet altogether, the works manage to convey a similar beauty, sensitivity, and vitality that seems intrinsic to the culture that produced them.
—Jennifer Baum Lagdameo
“40 for 40: Forty Masterpieces Celebrating Forty Years” is on view at Ronin Gallery, New York, Sep. 15–Oct. 17, 2015.