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Ukiyo-e and Playing Cards.

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Ukiyo-e is an art of the townsman. The word "Ukiyo-e" means literally "pictures of the floating world". It is the Japanese term for genre pictures and many styles of graphic art that arose in the Edo period (1603-1867). Ukiyo-e was originally a Buddhist term used to describe a misanthropic view of life and the mundane world. However, during the latter part of the 15th century it began to be used in poetry and literature to express the idea that life in this world is nothing more or less than a passing dream. In 1661 a book was published that stated:

To gaze at the moon or at the snow or at the flowers or at the autumn leaves, to sing songs, to drink wine, to enjoy life with a light heart, to not even feel pain if one's hand is cut, to float along without a care like a gourd on water - that is the true meaning of "Ukiyo-e".

Thus it had come to be used to describe a carefree philosophy of life, the "eat drink and be merry for tomorrow we may die" syndrome.


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Hishikawa Moronobu (1618-1694) originated the art of Ukiyo-e when he moved to Edo from his birth place in Boshu in 1658 and began illustrating books and drawing single pictures of the daily scenes in the pleasure district of Yoshiwara, of famous prostitutes and of explicit love scenes. Although at present they are represented by wood cut prints, in the beginning they were painted and coloured by hand.

Ukiyo-e was the designation for the expensive world of pleasure, the Kabuki theatre and the Yoshiwara brothel area, where all types of erotic satisfaction could be obtained. Due to the great number of pictures of all kinds published by this time, Ukiyo-e was already fast becoming a household word throughout the length and breadth of Japan.

Ukiyo-e cards with mildly erotic themes


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In spite of this, no artist of the day referred to himself as a Ukiyo-e painter, but rather as a Yamats painter or a Nihon cartoonist. It was much later that Ukiyo-e became the designation for a serious art form.

Ukiyo-e style is primarily a style of painting which emerged with a clearly separate identity in the 17th century, but whose origins were complex and traceable to a number of different artists of the late 16th and early 17th centuries. All of these artists showed an unusual interest in passing scenery, in the fashionable clothes and vices and who were seeking a pictorial language adequate to convey their worldly outlook. These early artists expressed themselves in paintings only, the Ukiyo-e wood cut did not arrive until the second half of the 17th century.

Artists such as Moronobu (17th century), Harunobu (1725-1770), Kiyonaga (1752-1815), Utamaro (1753-1806), Sharaku (c. 1786), Hokusai (1760-1849), Toyokuni (1769-1825) and Hiroshige (1797-1858) all gained popularity as representative artists. They also left superior works that are extremely important artistically.

Six cards with Ukiyo-e prints by various named artists


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Kiyonaga and Utamaro painted pictures mainly of charming beauties. Sharaku for the most part made portraits of unique, deformed actors which are of the highest value but his works are extremely few. Hiroshige and Hokusai excelled in landscapes. Toyokuni trained many disciples and painted mainly pictures of actors.

Three cards with Ukiyo-e prints by Sharaku


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Among Ukiyo-e painters Moronobu's Ukiyo-e wood block prints were printed in simple black with a bit of vermilion or yellow brushed in upon occasion. Thus he was unable to express the gorgeous beauty or the styles of clothing that were popular in his day. But Moronobu also did a certain amount of painting in his style and one of his paintings has become so famous that it was used on a Japanese postage stamp.

There were other artists who spent their entire lives producing only hand painted portraits of beautiful women, including Kaigetsudo Ando and Miyagawa Choshum.

Among the Ukiyo-e painters, the most famous was Kaigetsudo Ando. His works are extremely stereotyped portraits of beautiful, full-bodied women who face either left or right and stand with their bodies bent backward, executed in bold lines. He used clay paints to express the gorgeously elegant patterns of their clothing.


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Utamaro - Beauty Print Master

My favourite Ukiyo-e artist however is Utamaro (1753-1806). Utamaro began by imitating Kiyonaga, but in 1791 he began working in a revolutionary, original style that immediately made him the most popular artist of the day. It was a close-up style of beauty (o-kubi-e) that was inspired by the close-up actor portrait print, a sparse economical style. Utamaro expressed the idealized beauty of women always using the fewest possible lines and colour, highlighting the clear, fair complexion. He painted women from all walks of life, not only courtesans but geisha, tea stall waitresses, common housewives and children, and even female divers.

The use of a very thin red line for outlining the face and arms, as seen in a few prints, was one more technique developed by this great artist for the same purpose. He brought these techniques to their full development in his "Poems of Love" series in which he used the close-up portrait form to express the deep thought of middle-aged women through themes from classical poetry, and in his "Popular Beauties" series.

Utamaro beauty print Ukiyo-e cards

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Hiroshige - Perfector of the Landscape Print

Another of my favourite Ukiyo-e artists is Ando Hiroshige who was known as the perfector of the landscape print. Hiroshige (1797-1858) started to learn drawing at the age of fifteen with Ukiyo-e artist Toyo Hiro Utagawa. He was inspired to become a landscape artist by the prints of Hokusai. In 1833 the Hoeido Publishing House published his "Fifty-Three Stages of the Tokaido". The series was a result of sketches Hiroshige had made in 1832 during his first trip along the Tokaido. Hiroshige's objective view of his own personal experience was much praised for its rich lyricism. During his lifetime, Hiroshige produced thirteen different series of scenes along this same highway, indicating the extent of the popularity of his work in this one category alone.

Although students of the Utagawa school, including Kunisada, Kuniyoshi and their many students continued to produce Ukiyo-e prints until 1907, it is safe to say that the traditions, the techniques and the power of expression of the classical Ukiyo-e print died with Hiroshige in 1858.


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Ukiyo-e Playing Cards

Japanese playing card makers over the last thirty years have issued an intermittent yet persistent trickle of pictorial packs featuring prints of the Ukiyo-e type. These French suited cards are probably intended primarily for tourist souvenirs. One example in particular is said to be associated with the Veno Museum, which is presumably the building depicted on one of the Jokers.

There have been dozens of playing card packs on the theme of Ukiyo-e including Hiroshige's "Fifty-Three Stations" series manufactured from time to time. All the packs have different back designs yet there are many Ukiyo-e packs which have many similar paintings on the faces only with different suit symbols.

The playing cards manufactured are mostly from Japan but there are also examples from Austria, Spain, France and elsewhere. The prominent manufacturing companies in Japan are Angel Playing Card Co., Ace Manufacturers, Dainippon, Nintendo & Co. and Sanyo Sangyosha.


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Several playing card decks show just a single head, usually of a beautiful woman, but most of the packs also contain a good portion of cards showing groups of people. Several packs have gold edges and are nicely boxed so that even if they are more or less useless for play, they would make handsome souvenirs. This is probably their intended purpose.

One lovely seventy-eight card Ukiyo-e Tarot deck by Angel Co. Japan shows seventy-eight different paintings based on Ukiyo-e along with a booklet for predicting the future with the Tarot cards. The vitality, freshness and charm of the Ukiyo-e Tarot deck by artist Koji Furuta captures the beautiful "Floating World" of Ukiyo-e art which was popular in 17th and 18th century Japan and which chronicled everyday life.

Six cards from a Ukiyo-e Tarot deck published by U.S. Games Systems Inc.