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Evolution of Japanese Woodblock Art: Ukiyo-e, Shin-Hanga, and Sosaku-Hanga

Home 5 Ukiyo-e 5 Evolution of Japanese Woodblock Art: Ukiyo-e, Shin-Hanga, and Sosaku-Hanga
As we traverse the epochs of ukiyo-e, shin-hanga, and sosaku-hanga, we witness not only the evolution of an artistic medium but the unfolding narrative of a culture.
Last updated Feb 1, 2024
by Sal

Japanese woodblock art, a cultural treasure with roots dating back to the Edo period (1603 – 1868), has undergone a fascinating evolution marked by distinct movements. Ukiyo-e, the “pictures of the floating world,” initiated this artistic journey, followed by the shin-hanga movement in the 20th century, and later the emergence of sosaku-hanga. Let’s embark on a visual and historical exploration of these three significant phases.

Ukiyo-e: The Edo Period (17th – 19th Century)

Characteristics of Ukiyo-e:

Ukiyo-e, born during the Edo period, portrayed the vibrant urban culture of the time. Its key characteristics include:

  1. Subject Matter: Scenes from the “floating world,” encompassing landscapes, kabuki actors, beautiful women, and more.
  2. Technique: Precision in line work and vibrant color palettes, often crafted on woodblocks.
  3. Audience: Primarily the urban commoners, reflecting the popular culture of the time.
  4. Innovation: Introduction of multicolored prints (nishiki-e) and the use of perspective in compositions.

Artists and Notable Works:

  1. Artist: Hishikawa Moronobu (c. 1618–1694)
  2. Artist: Kitagawa Utamaro (1753–1806)
    • Notable Work: “Three Beauties of the Present Day”
    • Description: Utamaro was renowned for his bijin-ga (pictures of beautiful women). His intricate portrayals of women in various roles contributed significantly to the ukiyo-e genre.
  3. Artist: Katsushika Hokusai (1760–1849)

Shin-Hanga: Early 20th Century

Characteristics of Shin-Hanga:

Shin-hanga, translating to “new prints,” emerged as a revivalist movement. Key features include:

  1. Subject Matter: Landscapes, nature, and traditional themes with a modern touch.
  2. Technique: Meticulous detailing, emphasis on color gradation, and collaboration between artists, carvers, and printers.
  3. Audience: Both domestic and international, attracting a global market.
  4. Innovation: Fusion of traditional ukiyo-e techniques with Western realism and perspective.

Artists and Notable Works:

  1. Artist: Kawase Hasui (1883–1957)
    • Notable Work: “Spring Evening at Inokashira Park”
    • Description: Hasui was a prominent shin-hanga artist known for his landscapes. His works often captured serene scenes of nature, reflecting a harmonious blend of traditional and modern influences.
  2. Artist: Itō Shinsui (1898–1972)
    • Notable Work: “Bathing Scene”
    • Description: Shinsui contributed to the revival of traditional woodblock printing. His bijin-ga, like “Bathing Scene,” portrayed elegant and modern Japanese women.
  3. Artist: Hiroshi Yoshida (1876–1950)
    • Notable Work: “Mount Fuji from Okitsu”
    • Description: Yoshida combined Western and Japanese artistic techniques. His landscape prints, such as those featuring Mount Fuji, showcase meticulous detail and a fusion of styles.

Shin-Hanga: Early 20th Century

Characteristics of Shin-Hanga:

Shin-hanga, translating to “new prints,” emerged as a revivalist movement. Key features include:

  1. Subject Matter: Landscapes, nature, and traditional themes with a modern touch.
  2. Technique: Meticulous detailing, emphasis on color gradation, and collaboration between artists, carvers, and printers.
  3. Audience: Both domestic and international, attracting a global market.
  4. Innovation: Fusion of traditional ukiyo-e techniques with Western realism and perspective.

Artists and Notable Works:

  1. Artist: Onchi Kōshirō (1891–1955)
    • Notable Work: “The Bell Tower at Tsuchizaki”
    • Description: Onchi was instrumental in promoting the sosaku-hanga ideology of artist involvement in the entire printmaking process. His prints often featured abstract and symbolic elements.
  2. Artist: Saitō Kiyoshi (1907–1997)
    • Notable Work: “Winter In Aizu”
    • Description: Saitō played a key role in revitalizing woodblock printing. “Winter In Aizu Series” is a striking example of his adaptation of traditional techniques to create modern, stylized landscapes.

A Comparative Glimpse:

  • Artistic Independence: While ukiyo-e was often produced by teams of artists, carvers, and printers, sosaku-hanga celebrated individual artistic expression. Shin-hanga found a middle ground with collaboration but leaned towards individualism.
  • Subject Matter: Ukiyo-e thrived on depicting the pleasures of the “floating world,” shin-hanga leaned towards landscapes and traditional themes, and sosaku-hanga explored diverse and often experimental subjects.
  • Audience: Ukiyo-e catered to the urban masses, shin-hanga reached a broader domestic and international audience, and sosaku-hanga appealed to a more avant-garde and niche market.

Conclusion: A Tapestry of Japanese Artistic Evolution

The evolution of Japanese woodblock art, from the spirited ukiyo-e to the refined shin-hanga and the avant-garde sosaku-hanga, weaves a tapestry of artistic innovation. Each movement reflects the changing times, the fusion of traditional and modern influences, and the unique expressions of the artists who contributed to this rich heritage.

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Limited edition original Japanese art prints by The Art of Zen
Limited edition original Japanese art prints by The Art of Zen

At the Art of Zen we have a wide selection of original Japanese art prints in the ukiyo-e and Japandi style. Some of our best selling work is Mount Fuji wall art and Japandi wall art.

Add some zen to your space with brilliant original art from the Art of Zen shop.

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