Masterpieces of Ukiyo-e

Date: 12 December 2008 – 15 March 2009
Venue: Victoria and Albert Museum, South Kensington, London SW7 2RL

Julie and Robert Breckman Gallery and part of the Edwin and Susan Davies Galleries (rooms 90 and 88a). A smaller selection of prints will also be on display in the Toshiba Gallery of Japanese Art and Design (room 45).Ukiyo-e (浮世絵, Ukiyo-e), “pictures of the floating world”, is a genre of Japanese woodblock prints (or woodcuts) and paintings produced between the 17th and the 20th centuries, featuring motifs of landscapes, tales from history, the theatre and pleasure quarters. It is the main artistic genre of woodblock printing in Japan.

The “floating world” (ukiyo) refers to the impetuous urban culture that bloomed and was a world unto itself. Although the traditional classes of Japanese society were bound by numerous strictures and prohibitions, the rising merchant class was relatively unregulated, therefore “floating.”
The art form rose to great popularity in the metropolitan culture of Edo (Tokyo) during the second half of the 17th century, originating with the single-color works of Hishikawa Moronobu in the 1670s. At first, only India ink was used, then some prints were manually colored with a brush, but in the 18th century Suzuki Harunobu developed the technique of polychrome printing to produce nishiki-e.
Ukiyo-e were affordable because they could be mass-produced. They were meant for mainly townsmen, who were generally not wealthy enough to afford an original painting. The original subject of ukiyo-e was city life, in particular activities and scenes from the entertainment district. Beautiful courtesans, bulky sumo wrestlers and popular actors would be portrayed while engaged in appealing activities. Later on landscapes also became popular. Political subjects, and individuals above the lowest strata of society (courtesans, wrestlers and actors) were not sanctioned in these prints and very rarely appeared. Sex was not a sanctioned subject either, but continually appeared in ukiyo-e prints. Artists and publishers were sometimes punished for creating these sexually explicit shunga.

The V&A’s collection of ukiyo-e is one of the largest and finest in the world, with over 25,000 prints. This display will feature highlights from the touring exhibition Masterpieces of Ukiyo-e from the Victoria and Albert Museum, shown at 7 venues in Japan in 2007/8.
It will comprise some 60 prints & drawings from the V&A’s unique collection, along with illustrated books and albums. Exhibition themes will reflect the strengths of the collection: glorious full-colour prints, fan prints, illustrated poetry books, and artists’ sketches and copyists’ drawings that offer unique insights into the production methods of ukiyo-e.

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