Masters of the Japanese Print: Their World and Their Work

Masters of the Japanese Print: Their World and Their Work

Masters of the Japanese Print: Their World and Their Work

Masters of the Japanese Print: Their World and Their Work

Excerpt

Neither Kano nor Tosa can paint it: Main Street -- Toshiwara

(Eighteenth-century epigram)

SPEAK of Moronobu, and to the mind's eye appears a procession of vigorous, picturesque figures, all the motley citizenry of old Edo; the magic name of Harunobu evokes slender, ethereal girls, as lovely and fragile as the first frost of winter; Utamaro, Hokusai, Hiroshige -- each name stands for a unique and arresting kind of beauty, whether of voluptuous femininity, masculine strength, or scenic grandeur. These men, and several dozen more, represent the ultimate glory of ukiyo-e (ookee-yóh-eh) -- "pictures of the fleeting, floating world."

The ukiyo-e masters mark a fitting conclusion to the long and glowing tradition of classical Japanese art. Like the era which nurtured it -- the Edo Period (1600-1868) -- ukiyo-e art represents a unique development in Japan, the growth of a great renaissance based upon a largely popular foundation, whereas the earlier high points of Japanese civilization had been forged largely by the aristocracy or the priesthood. That such popularization did not result in vulgarization is one of the wonders of the world of art. This was the consequence, in part, of the innate sense of restrained form and color harmony of the Japanese populace as a whole. At the same time the determined efforts of an enlightened group of artists, artisans, publishers, connoisseurs, and patrons ensured that ukiyo-e standards would always remain several degrees above the level the populace considered "acceptable."

Politically and socially this was a feudal, almost totalitarian age; the masses accepted the voice of authority in most of their social activities. In their arts, too, they were willing to follow the lead of a loosely bound group of "style dictators," much as women have sometimes followed Paris fashions in our own day. The result was two centuries of ukiyo-e woodblock prints, a continuous flow of high quality which was both the reflection and the . . .

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