It’s a busy day on the street. Vendors carry fabric samples in large containers on their backs, on their way to take measurements for custom-made kimonos. Locals buy groceries from a man who bends under the weight of his inventory, baskets of food hanging from the long pole slung over his shoulder. A crowd of kimono-clad women, their faces painted white, gathers towards the end of the street, while Mount Fuji looms in the background, shrouded in a gradient of fog.
The scene is entirely two-dimensional. It’s definitely not this year, or even this century. And though there’s already a sense of hustle and bustle, it’s not Tokyo just yet — we’re on the ground in Edo circa 1856. But how did we get here?
How is via Zoom. Here is a woodblock print by the artist Utagawa Hiroshige, from his series 100 Famous Views of Edo.
In this presentation by Japanese tour service Japonisme, attendees traverse space, time and dimension through close study of Ukiyo-e art. Though this virtual tour does not focus on a physical location, it still draws our attention to a specific culture and lifestyle — that of 17th- through 19th-century Japan, when Ukiyo-e printmaking flourished.
Japonisme’s UKIYO-E ART TOUR Offers Glimpse Into the Past
Mika, Japonisme’s government-licensed tour guide, takes us through several works, highlighting facts and information that might otherwise remain hidden to the untrained eye. She explains how Ukiyo-e artwork rose to prominence as a form of entertainment for commoners, due to an economic upturn that allowed for indulgence of non-essentials and the cheap production and distribution process afforded by woodblock printing. Because the majority of prints were made during Japan’s enforced period of isolation, when most outside contact was illegal, we get a glimpse of the country steeped in its own aesthetics and traditions, pre western influence.
Pausing her presentation, Mika asks the audience for their guess at the average cost of a print back in the days of Ukiyo-e’s proliferation. Two to three dollars? Tens? Hundreds? Could it really be so low, given that, as Mika points out, Hokusai’s Fine Wind, Clear Morning just recently sold for $507,000?
She answers: just a few dollars - the same as a bowl of soba noodles, or any other casual street snack. She explains how these inexpensive works of art provided a way for people to consume and share the latest in culture and entertainment — including scenic spots in Tokyo, visual records of travel and daily life, depictions of geisha, and stylized portraits of famous kabuki actors. With this diverse array of content and scenery, Mika says that the prints made for a welcome pop of color in merchant class homes that were otherwise muted in tone — a simple detail that oriented this writer directly into the mindspace and priorities of the period.
She takes us for a deep dive into several other prints, placing them within the context of their moment in history, but also connecting them to the present by revealing, for example, the modern-day banking connections of a particularly successful kimono vendor, and comparing an artist’s subtle inclusion of a face powder brand to the incorporation of ads in celebrity Instagram feeds. She also highlights the work of famed Ukiyo-e painter and printmaker Katsushika Hokusai, and the unique habits (both personal and artistic) that allowed him to create so many prolific pieces. Each segment includes a number of details that illustrate the specific reality of people’s lived experiences during this period — you might find that these concrete, human-centered stories impart a sense of connection that is often difficult to glean when learning history a la carte.
Altogether, this writer found the presentation slightly less illuminating than other tours from Japonisme reviewed by Picture This Post, which offer more of a destination-based experience. But if you enjoy studying art and art history, especially as a way of gaining insight into the daily lives of generations past, Japonisme’s Ukiyo-e Art Tour might be just the thing for you.
Check out Japonisme’s website for information on upcoming tours.
Images courtesy of Japonisme
About the Author: Lily LeaVesseur
Lily LeaVesseur has harbored a fondness for the arts since she was a few months old, when her parents took her on her first of many stroller rides through the halls of the Art Institute of Chicago. Even after moving to San Diego as a child, she returned many times so that she could stare down her favorite pieces, combing them over again and again for clues to their greatness.
She carried this enthusiasm like a missionary, and in high school petitioned to re-open the single Art History course on the roster so that she could study it with her friends. She loved feeling like she could unlock some sort of intangible mystery behind works of art, and looking for herself within the artists that created them.
Since then Lily has continued to explore art both analytically and creatively. She now writes poetry and non-fiction, sometimes accompanied by illustrations or watercolor, and hopes to one day collect these works into a graphic novel. When she's not writing or drawing, she can otherwise be found skating with friends, experimenting with new food combinations, and/or lying on the floor contemplating the transcendental nature of TikTok.