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Ukiyo-e prints: The grace of the East and European mentality

By Huong Vu, 8th December 2015

“It is high art, definitely, beyond the obscenity”, Tijana claimed with sparkling eyes when expressing her feeling for Ukiyo-e prints.

Ukiyo-e, which means “pictures of the floating world” in Japanese, is a Japanese art drawings genre produced from woodblock prints. As the name suggests, ukiyo-e artists depict the world ranging from landscape to human. However, most are often mistaken ukiyo-e as obscenity, since the genre is most well-known with the “spring images” (an euphenism for erotica). As a very bold approach of representing raw reality, spring images explicitly display human bodies. It is the celebration of youthful love and human emotion.

Tijana Đuknić, a 20 years old Serbian, who is now studying Art and Culture at Erasmus university is not the exceptional case of having a fetish for the Japanese art drawings. The interest in oriental culture, particularly Japanese, is a trend among European youngsters nowadays. In fact, the integration of Japanese art drawings into Western societies is not something new. The very first introduction of this seemingly exotic art can be traced back to the 17th century when many Japanese ceramics and art crafts were exported to Europe. Indeed, Japanese art plays a sustainable role in shaping the aesthetics styles among European artists and Ukiyo-e has become a main source of inspiration for many artists of modernism. One of the most prominent figures in European arts, Vincent van Gogh himself incorporated some ukiyo-e elements in his drawing Portrait of Père Tanguy [See illustration].

Familiar as Ukiyo-e might be, the art is still considered as a cult culture. “Frankly, I do have some assumption about people of European background who are into Ukiyo-e. They might be very geeky, nerdy and gypsy.” Tijana commented on those who share the same interest with her. “Still, I believe it is something very different from our background. And even though Japanese culture might be a trend these days, it is certainly not, let say, mainstream Hollywood movies.”

Apparently, Ukiyo-e artists are not Hollywood entertainment producers but they use the same strategy when it comes to approaching the audience. Key answer: let’s produce a lot! Those drawings pave the way for pure art and commercial development at the same time. Due to the woodblock printing technique, Ukiyo-e can be reproduced into a large number of copies that cater for mass consumption, showing that high art can become a consumable and affordable product. “That’s also a reason why I am so into it.” Said Frederich, (26 years old, Germany) who has a collection of some printings at home.

“It offers the opportunity for students like me who have often low budget but still can own a copy. Though after thousands of reproduction, the colors and the line of the line are not sharp compared to the original one. But still you get the seen and the touch of an actual physical material. Also, the artistic value is not affected.”

As being asked whether the interest somewhat affects her European mentality, Tjiana clearly refuses. “It does help me discover more aspects of a different culture but the fetish doesn’t affect me that much. As a Art and culture student, I study those things and it’s normal for me to be passionate about it. But in the end of the day, I am still a Serbian.”

Frederich, however, might want to disagree with Tjiana on that point. “I find those drawings very intriguing and I am quite obsessed with it. To some extent, it does affect my choice in life because I’m planning to have a gap year travelling around the world. And Japan is definitely one of the destinations that I wish to discover.” Shon (23 years old, UK) nods his head. “It does, yea. I become involved in some related events and ended up socializing with some Japanese people, who either are living here or are exchange students. I consider it as something added to my British DNA.”

There are always some tensions inherent in each Ukiyo-e print: A sense of darkening self restriction yet open attitude towards sexual desire, artististica yet aiming for profit. Those might be crucial elements that appeal to people like Tijana, Frederich and Shon. Considering the history of how Japanese is involved in Western cultures and how it comes into play with European arts, ukiyo-e is not as exotic as it might seem. This proves the point that irrespective of how much involvement it is, oriental culture in general or ukiyo-e in specific is still considered a cunt in Europe compared to the dominant culture from America. Whatever motivation that leads youngsters having an interest in this type of culture is, it is surely that the interest broadens their views of the world horizontally. In the age of globalisation, it is a positive addition and good preparation for the young generation who are about to contact with people from every corner of the world.

“Those gypsy people like us, know the world better.” Shon laughs.


Illustrated photo


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