How the Japanese Art Movement Influenced the World: The Tribune India
“…. living only for now, savoring the moon, the snow, the cherry blossoms and the maple leaves, singing songs, drinking sake and having fun just floating around, oblivious to the prospect of impending poverty, dynamic and carefree, like a calabash carried away by the current of the river: this is called ukiyo.
— Asai Ryoi, c. 1661
‘When I was 50, I published a universe of drawings, but everything I did before 70 is of little value. At 75, I will have learned something about the pattern of nature, animals, plants, trees, birds, fish and insects. When I turn 80, you will see real progress. At 90, I will have dug deep into the mystery of life itself. At 100, I will be a marvelous artist. At 110, everything I create – a dot, a line – will come to life like never before.
—Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849)
A little less than 300 years ago, an artistic movement emerged in Japan that changed the world of art almost everywhere in the world. Ukiyo-e, which literally means “Pictures of the Floating World”, is what this movement aimed to produce, moving away from the rigid classicism of earlier Japanese works and immersing itself in the ordinary, hedonistic world of the common man in which the Kabuki actors and seductive courtesans, teahouses and entertainment parlors, wrestling heroes and famous romantic scenes, all moved noisily. The word ukiyo, which came to be associated with the movement, originally expressed the Buddhist idea of the transitory nature of life. But suddenly, this rather sober, even pessimistic notion was turned upside down. From the ‘transient’ meaning, which is life of course, the emphasis has shifted to ‘floating’, expressing an attitude of joie de vivre. This new visual world, created by remarkably gifted artists, came into existence in the form of woodblock prints, allowing anyone with a little extra cash to enter a world of dazzling images. . The movement took off like a blazing fire, and the names of artists – like Hokusai, Hiroshige, Utamaro, Sharaku, among them – began to become household names, even as their cheap wooden blocks were lying around, becoming posters , transformed greeting cards or wrapping paper. , peppering house after house and street corner after street corner.
I have already written about ukiyo-e, in this same section. The subject matter is alluring, and what it comes up with – in terms of exploring its complexities and measuring its impact on the art world alone – can occupy a long, long time. It is possible to take only one artist and his work – the great Hokusai for example: 30,000 works; obsessive preoccupation with unique themes like Thirty Six Views of Mt. Fuji, and the 100 others that followed; Remarkable views of bridges in various provinces; a single extraordinary structure 180 meters long; constant soul-searching – and find it hard to come out of it. It’s also possible to both cross Europe from Japan and see how electrifying and profound the impact ukiyo-e prints had on artists who would go on to become icons of modern art in full-fledged—Monet, Degas, Renoir, Toulouse-Lautrec, among others—admiring these new flat colors, shadowless surfaces, and dramatic angles, which came from Japan. Volumes have been written, and the theme is not yet exhausted.
On another note, however. In this context, I wonder if, in some strange and temporal way, we – all of us – are not part of a “floating world” too. Not floating, as Asai Ryoi described it, happily “like a gourd carried along by the current of the river”, nor like freshly cut logs from a forest and rushing downstream: sometimes moving, sometimes stuck briefly in a corner. But adrift; without knowing where we are going. Or, even worse, conscious but unable to do anything about it. Consider the world we live in at all levels: political, economic, social, cultural, especially moral. It’s pure chaos. There’s no merriment in that, no celebratory noises we hear, except those yelled by dumb media or cash-rich corporations, in the name of entertainment. A virus rises and spreads from an unknown source, or a lab perhaps, and begins to squeeze the world, holding it by its skinny neck. A black man is strangled to death by a white uniformed policeman, nationwide protests and riots break out, and yet nothing, really nothing, happens. Millions of migrant workers are beginning to struggle home, all possessions, all jobs, all dignity lost, and continue to hope for better days to come. In another corner of the world, men opposed to the establishment are being administered slow doses of poison in order to neutralize them. A known terrorist organization threatened to set the world on fire if its demands were not met and yet, despite the best efforts of a wide range of nations, it continues to expand and “burn”. We are moved, but remain unable to move.
Curiously, or perhaps as a diversion, I occasionally look at some of the ukiyo-e images – mostly Hokusai – and see things in them that tell us something or the other about our world today, or about our mindsets. In The Great Wave off Kanagawa by Hokusai, “arguably the most famous image in all Asian art”, are caught a few unfortunate little boats. We don’t even see them at first, because the “noise” we hear made by the roaring wave is so powerful, drowning out all other sounds and sights, but slowly we begin to see them: not one, but three, all but about to be overwhelmed and swept away. In The Suspension Bridge at the Hida Border, where we see two figures, precariously positioned with everything shaking and heaving beneath them as they take their rickety steps, we can almost see each other. When foolish young men fly a kite from a steep slate roof – Kite Flying from Rooftop – we almost fall ourselves. In Les Acrobates de Torii Kiyomitsu, almost everything refers to nothing other than the staging, the performance.
Only rarely do we come across a soothing sight like A Boy Watching Mt. Fuji. The rest – if not in ukiyo-e, at least in our own lives and “floating” surroundings – is a world that is all flight and stream, pitch and roll, keel and tilt. Is not it?