Visual Artifices

“Living only for the moment, turning our full attention to the pleasures of the moon, the snow, the cherry blossoms and the maple leaves; singing songs, drinking sake, diverting ourselves in just floating, floating […] refusing to be disheartened, like a gourd floating along with the river current: this is what we call ukiyo-e”

Asai Ryōi (1612-1691)

Ukiyo-e is the sensual flowing of single instants into the uninterrupted stream of time. It is the pleasure of minute experiences, unimportant moments, mundane leisure. Mentioning Aby Warburg, God lurks into details. The subjects of this movement are astonishing landscapes, urban views, beautiful women, as well as brothel scenes and the multiple lusts of life. It is maybe unsurprising that these prints became extremely popular in the late Nineteenth-century Europe. The Impressionists avidly collected them, enjoying the apparently casual choice of viewpoints, the bi-dimensional pictorial space, and the real-life subjects.

Beauties on a Bridge – Utamaro

Ukiyo-e prints may convey a sense of ease. There is no narration, and description prevails. The patterns of women’s kimonos, the refined hair texture, all these elements provide a convincing image of reality. The lack of shades, the division of figures into horizontal levels, and the uniform rendering of light mark a neat difference with contemporary Western art. Yet, this utter difference fostered the Japanese masters’ fame among an audience increasingly tired of the academic conventions.

Powdering the Neck – Utamaro

The ukiyo-e artists tended to specialise in specific themes or genres. For example, Kitagawa Utamaro was renowned for his erotic and pornographic prints. On the other hand, Utagawa Hiroshige was a famous landscape-designer, whose chief work is One Hundred Famous Views of Edo. It is a collection of images of Tokyo and its suburban areas (Edo is indeed the original name of the city). Their beauty stems from the variety of each print, and the unexpected perspectives employed by the artist.

The Sanctuary of Kameido Tenjin – Hiroshige

In The Sanctuary of Kameido Tenjin, Hiroshige pleases the viewer through an ordered system of horizontal and vertical elements.The horizon lines cross with the bridge’s piers, while the languid shapes of plants enliven the composition. An apparently candid snapshot of reality hides a complex project, whose marvel is betrayed by our wonder in front of the image. Hiroshige’s use of lines is essential, yet he renders several details throughout the picture: the two little birds in the centre, the rocks’ texture, and the pine’s leaves are the most exquisite ones. Colours further support the visual structure of the piece. The contrast between the yellow sky and the blue pond, for instance, captures our attention, while the red lanterns in the background balance the composition.

Suido Bridge and Surugadai – Hiroshige

Hiroshige’s mastery becomes fully evident in Suido Bridge and Surugadai. Here, the spectator faces the surprisingly realistic representation of a carp-shaped flag. The blue eye of the fabric fish stares at the viewer, while the bright details of its scales redirect the gaze toward the centre of the image. There, a far red standard pierces the plain city view. The unusual, the unexpected is the way the painter introduces his otherwise conventional subject, thus fixing it in the memory of the viewers.

In conclusion, Ukiyo-e presents the visual value of the most common scenes, approached from peculiar perspectives. The content is a mere occasion for the aesthetic experience to happen in the receptive spectator. In fact, there is little space for intellectual enjoyment, and the perception remains the central component of such works. It is a prompt, I believe, to research beauty in the here and now, fragments scattered throughout our daily life.


Featured image

Beauties – Utamaro

Powdering – Utamaro

Kameido Tenjin – Hiroshige

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Alessandro M. Rubin Written by:

Cambridge History of Art alumnus. Passionate early-modernist, curious about contemporary art and aesthetic theory.

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