Ukiyo-e : the art of japonese stamps

19 avril 2016

Cheap popular images in Japan, inspiration of European impressionists, stamps have known their golden age during nearly two centuries in the heart of the Edo era.

The images of the floating world

Originally, the Japanese name of stamps, ukiyo-e (浮世絵) which literally means "pictures of the floating world", had a pejorative meaning. From Buddhist, ukiyo evokes the transience of life, a sad world, floating, where nothing is constant, nor palpable. It was during the Edo period that the meaning changed. This period, that runs from 1603 to 1868, also called "Tokugawa period", marks the takeover of the Tokugawa dynasty, that chose the city of Edo (now Tokyo) for capital to move away from the imperial capital, Kyoto. Asai Ryoi (1612 ? - 1691) was the first writer to evoke ukiyo in an epicurean way in 1661 in the preface of Ukiyo monogatari (floating world): "To live only for the moment, contemplate the moon, the snow , the cherry blossoms and the leaves of maple trees glowing, love wine, women and song, do not worry about poverty, just go with the flow of life as the gourd floats over the water, this is what I call ukiyo". This is the ukiyo expression, that we add « e » which means drawing or painting.

A society in turmoil

At his arrival in 1603, the shogun Ieyasu Tokugawa (1543-1616) established the bakufu (military government) and isolates Japan from the outside world by blocking all exchanges (human and material) both incoming and outgoing. A caste system is set up with four very different classes: the Daimyo (lords), the samurai (warriors), the farmers and the merchants. The Daimyo are then forced by the regime from 1635 to stay in Edo at least one year out of two and their purchasing power makes them wealthy and privileged customers for merchants who enrich themselves. It is, from this virtuous circle, that Japanese society is rapidly developing and urban entertainment, also with literature, theater and the arts are following next. 

courtisane et théâtre

(Une courtisane et le théâtre Kabuki Ichimura za)

In Edo, two districts are cultural locomotives: the pleasure district of Yoshiwara and the theater district. To attract the eyes and the full pockets, merchants and owners of theaters then use the stamps as advertising media. This very cheap media, which can also serve as a memento of entertainment, then diffuses rapidly. The favorite themes of the ukiyo-e are then the scenes of life in these neighborhoods, with theater actors and courtesans.

Unchanged technical but different representations

If, in the VIIIth century, the earliest stamps were intended for religious subjects, the change of context and inspirations will not move the technique at all. This ancient method from China is a collective work that requires the presence of four people: an editor who coordinates the work, an artist who makes the drawing with China ink, an engraver that applies the design on a wooden board and a printer that completes the draw. Different subjects and even different artistic currents have succeeded on the cherry wood of ukiyo-e.


(Trente-six vues du Mont Fuji vers 1830-1831)

Scenes of kabuki (theatrical genre) with the School of Torii masters, to simple portraits of courtesans, beautiful women, Sumos or actors, stamps went through different styles. In full censorship, the trend has shifted to the representation of landscapes with masters such as Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849) or Utagawa Hiroshige (1797-1858) to the Shinto spiritual matters. The ukiyo-e do not aim first to represent reality, but to image the emotions of the actors or the beauty of landscapes for example. In 1858, Japan opens to the world by American constraint and the stamps are going through the sea to get under the eyes of European painters. Greatly inspired by sacred landscapes, impressionist painters, in period of full release, are then imposing themselves in Europe.

Olivier Anicet, artist of the week

Olivier Anicet, Carré d’artistes® artist of the week, is fascinated by several art movements such as abstract Art, African Art and Japanese stamps and engraving. Olivier Anicet mainly uses oil paint, pastel, marouflage and collage. His travels (Europe, USA, Mexico) influence him in his creation and in his use of color. He paints colorful cityscapes and scenes of daily life. The artist's approach is all about surprise. His paintings reflect his inner self that combines different spaces of creativity, of reserve, of self-research or of his understanding of the world around him. His creations become his force of expression and language.

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