Floating World of Ukiyo-e - Shadows, Dreams, and Substance

Cut out from image of bird and flower (Ukiyo-e)

The Floating World of Ukiyo-e: Shadows, Dreams, and Substance showcases the Library's spectacular holdings of Japanese "Ukiyo-e" (translated as pictures of the floating, or sorrowful, world) and is the first public viewing of this important and previously unseen collection. Featured are selected Ukiyo-e prints, books, and drawings from the seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries and other related works from the Library's collections created by Japanese and Western artists into the twentieth century.

The Library of Congress owes its extensive holdings of Ukiyo-e prints and printed books to a host of different collectors, including Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes and President William Howard Taft. However, the most extensive collection of Ukiyo-e at the Library was assembled by Crosby Stuart Noyes (1825-1908), an owner and editor-in-chief of the former Washington Evening Star. In giving the collection to the Library in 1905, Mr. Noyes expressed the hope that the collection would be "an illustration of the extraordinary variety in Japanese art and an instructive and timely insight into their history and culture."

In presenting this exhibition, the Library of Congress offers its visitors the opportunity to see the beauty and the meaning that motivated Crosby Stuart Noyes and others to collect these materials.

Historical Background

Cut out from an Ukiyo-e image depicting row of houses with people

The Japanese art of Ukiyo-e developed in the city of Edo (now Tokyo) during the Tokugawa or Edo Period (1615-1868). These two names refer to the relatively peaceful 250 years during which the Tokugawa shoguns ruled Japan and made Edo the shogunal seat of power.

The social hierarchy of the day, officially established by shogun rulers, placed the merchants, the wealthiest segment of the population, at the lower end of the scale. With their political power effectively removed, the merchant class turned to art and culture as arenas in which they could participate on an equal basis with the elite upper classes (warriors, farmers, and artisans). It was the collaboration among the merchants, artists, publishers, and townspeople of Edo that gave Ukiyo-e its unique voice. In turn, Ukiyo-e provided these groups with a means of attaining cultural status outside the sanctioned realms of shogunate, temple, and court.

Although Ukiyo-e was initially considered "low" art, by and for the non-elite classes, its artistic and technical caliber is consistently remarkable. Reading the images demands an extremely high level of visual, textual, and cultural literacy. From its earliest days, Ukiyo-e images and texts frequently referred to themes from classical, literary, and historical sources. At the same time, Ukiyo-e constantly expanded to reflect contemporary tastes, concerns, and innovations over the two and a half centuries of its development. The result was an art that was both populist (of and for the people, readily accessible, plentiful, affordable) and highly sophisticated. In summary, Ukiyo-e presented both the historical and all that was current, fashionable, chic, and popular. In the hands of the Ukiyo-e artist, the ordinary was transformed into the extraordinary.

Ukiyo-e Woodblock Prints and Books

Portion of a modern wood-block in the Ukiyo-e style

The art of the woodblock is exemplified in Ukiyo-e, which exploited the full potential of this printmaking medium. In Ukiyo-e, each image was created through the collaborative effort of four skilled individuals: the publisher who coordinated the efforts of the specialized artisans and marketed the artworks; the artist who designed the artworks and drew them in ink on paper; the carver who meticulously carved the designs into a woodblock, or, in most cases, a series of woodblocks (during the Edo period the number of blocks averaged ten to sixteen); and a printer who applied pigments to the woodblocks and printed each color on handmade paper. Each member of this team was highly skilled and had nearly equal responsibilities for the final result.

The woodblock images in this exhibition display a broad spectrum of styles and printing techniques. The early prints are spare and monochromatic, printed in black ink only, some with minimal hand-coloring. Later works are built up in lavish layers of printed color, some with embossed areas created by the interplay of pressure, carving, and paper texture. In some works, flecks of ground metal or mica have been applied to surfaces, creating areas that shimmer; in some a thick passage of glue and black printing ink creates a lacquer-like surface.

Perhaps most associated with loose sheet prints, Ukiyo-e is also richly represented in woodblock-printed picture books, called ehon. Printing techniques which both text and illustrations were carved into woodblocks provided the means by which large numbers of books could be produced without having to undergo the laborious and expensive process of hand copying, which had previously been the norm. Popular books, art manuals, and albums were produced in quantity using the same techniques that allowed for the mass production of Ukiyo-e prints.

As a vehicle for Ukiyo-e, woodblock printing was particularly successful, producing in quantity stunningly beautiful artworks that were available at a relatively low cost. The Library's collection numbering approximately 2000 woodblock prints and 400 block-printed ehon, attests to the unrivaled craftsmanship, technical excellence, and spectacular results that Ukiyo-e artists were able to achieve in woodblock printing.

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