Ukiyo-e is perhaps Japan’s most loved art forms; Sakura-season being it’s most beautiful. Imagine, if the two came together! With Hiroshi Yoshida’s woodblock prints or Ukiyo-E as they call it, you wouldn’t have to leave much to imagination.
When you think of Japan, the first artwork that comes to mind is “The Great Wave”. This world-famous, iconic work by Hokusai used the same technique : Ukiyo-E.
But this technique is older than Hokusai’s Great Wave (1829-1833), though it wouldn’t be wrong to claim that Hokusai and his peers popularized the Ukiyo-e art! The name of the technique means Floating (Uki) World (yo) Pictures (e); the term actually reflects the themes of these prints – entertainment, dance, leisurely activities, cherry blossom viewing, etc. According to Wikipedia, this is aptly described as the “urban lifestyle – especially the pleasure seeking aspects of the Edo period in Japan”
And that brings us to Hiroshi Yoshida’s Cherry Blossoms – because what is life in Japan without the magical blooming season?
At the end of the Meiji period in Japan, there was renewed interest in Ukiyo-e. There was a creative prints movement (sosaku hanga) and there was a modern-prints movement (shin hanga); Hiroshi Yoshida was one of the greatest artists of the Shin-Hanga style, especially known for his landscapes. While he travelled to India, and created some wonderful prints of the Golden Temple, Taj Mahal, etc., in this post, we’re particularly focusing on his Sakura-season chase.
Eight Scenes of Cherry Blossom
According the the Japan Guide, you can see many Cherry trees around the Togetsukyo Bridge at the foot of Arashiyama mountains, especially in the riverside Nakanoshima Park (early April). Our best guess is, that this was where Hiroshi Yoshida got his view! But his genius lies not in spotting Cherry Blossoms – but in creating these prints with so many colours! For an artist to make prints, he needed to have foresight and plan the outcome in advance.
The Ukiyo-e process involves etching the design made by the artist onto wood. A woodcarver would then carve the design out in negative such that the parts to be coloured, were raised in relief. A separate block for each colour was made, and had to be perfectly aligned. Sometimes, a print-making process could include around 70 steps!
Avenue of Cherry Trees
Now take this wood-block print for example. How many colours do you see?
Ukiyo-e prints have some of the most interesting pigments – reds, blues, purple, and the delicate sakura-pink! These are water-based or made from vegetable dyes, and hence the soft colours. You’d also notice that the colours are flat, with no texture. This is because of the printing process.
In this print, take a closer look at the reflection in water. How do you think the artist achieved that?
Each print also has blocks of writing which identify the print’s title, series, artist, publisher, and other people involved in its production. Japanese script (kanji) is read from right to left, top to bottom. But Hiroshi Yoshida was different. He never created a block for his signature ‘Yoshida’ . Instead, he autographed every single print. Isn’t that simply awesome? In addition to his signature, a print would also have a custom seal (sometimes in red).
This seal was called the jizuri seal (picture above, courtesy The Koller Collection). Jizuri, meaning self-printed. It was almost like the artist stating that “this high quality print was made under his personal supervision”! Special seals for him, were almost always designed and created by friends.
Of these 8 prints we’ve shared, on how many can you spot jizuri seals? These seals indicated that the print was an early-edition.
Chion-in (Sanmon) Temple Gate
Ukiyo-e prints were an instant hit amidst Japan’s rising working class as they were affordable. According the Asian Art Museum, one print cost as much as a bowl of rice!
Yozakura in the Rain
So Yozakura actually means “night cherry blossom” – a time when people go out in the night to see illuminated cherry blossom trees. Those who have seen it, claim that there is nothing more magical! Imagine a night like that and it rains. Doesn’t look like Hiroshi Yoshida’s spirit was dampened at all! Again, in this print, his composition is so breathtaking – with the reflection of the tree merging with the realistic texture of water. Sometimes a woodblock print could easily use 20 blocks – how many do you think this one needed?
The Cherry Tree in Kawagoe
Did you know, that the size of an Ukiyo-e print could tell you what type of wood had been used? According to the Ronin Gallery, most artists preferred the Cherry Tree’s wood since they lasted longer and allowed for sharper lines. However, this meant, the artist had to be restricted in terms of the size of the block (based on the tree’s diameter).
Paper used in Ukiyo-e printing also determined the size. Much like today’s graphic prints, depending on the standard size of the paper available, artists would decide the size of the final print (so as to not waste any paper).
In a Temple Yard
The shin-hanga tradition (of which Hiroshi Yoshida was a leading figure) of art had five key elements : [Kendall Brown, Visions of Japan]
If you’d look over the prints again, you’d find all these elements intact. To understand the process of making ukiyo-e, check out this video. It’s a bit long, but worth it. With time, this technique came to India too. In a future post, we will be discussing Indian printmakers!