Pictures of the floating world

Van Gogh to the left and Hiroshige to the right

Van Gogh to the left and Hiroshige to the right

The Ukiyo-e (浮世 絵) has been the most important art movement in Edo (now Tokyo) between the end of 1700 and the first half of 1800. The Ukyo-e tradition was already alive in the seventeenth century, but from the end of the 18th century it finds a great flourishing moment thanks to its foremost artists: Utamaro, Hokusai and Hiroshige. These three artists have given us works unparalleled in sophistication and elegance and which have profoundly influenced Western art, as for example the works of Degas, Manet, Monet and later Van Gogh, Gauguin and Art Nouveau.

The expression “ukiyo-e” has a double meaning: originally, the meaning of “uki” referred to the suffering of life and melancholy, but since 1600 its pronunciation coincides with the meaning of “floating”, “transitory”; it is associated with “yo”, meaning “world”, and the last character “e” means “image”, “painting”. So: “Pictures of the floating world“.

La grande onda di Kanaga, Hokusai

The great wave of  Kanaga, Hokusai

The coincidence of suffering and impermanence in the Japanese culture of the time is a concept related to Buddhism, whereby the transient and fluctuating world we are living is permeated by melancholy of its so brief appearance, marked by the suffering of the end.

Red Fuji, Hokusai

Red Fuji, Hokusai

This passing illusion and the uncertainty of existence can be represented in different ways: one is expressing the fragility of human life at the mercy of fate and the forces of nature, like in many paintings of a particular branch of the Ukiyo-e which is called Fūkei- ga (Landscapes). Hokusai is the Fūkei- ga’s greatest interpreter, just take for examples Red Fuji and The Great Wave.

Madre e figlio, Utamaro.

Mother and son, Utamaro.

Otherwise, it may be preferred an attention to the smallest daily events, brief appearances of a sophisticated world, delightful images which float for a few moments before being submerged by History’s oblivion, as in Mother and son of Utamaro.



Always too short will be also love before it returns to ashes and that’s why it is caught so many times by the same artist, and sometimes also by Hokusai, according to the branch named Bijin-ga, “paintings of beautiful women”, and the other one called Shunga, sensual depictions that has been handed down from generation to generation the faces and deeds of erotic heroines, painted in prints that were often given away too young brides in order to instruct them.

Prugno rosso e luna, HiroshigeHiroshige instead preferred the Kacho-ga, representations of flowers and birds, trying to gather the rosebuds, before this flower will be dying tomorrow.

Dafne Castronovo


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