Woodcut print by Toshusai Sharaku (1794)
Woodcut print by Toshusai Sharaku (1794)

Civil wars were fought in Japan between rival shoguns for much of the time between 1333 and 1573. The samurai, a caste of professional warriors, became extremely influential throughout this period in all aspects of Japanese life including the arts. The samurai were attracted to the self-discipline and self-reliance emphasised by Zen Buddhism which they adopted from China. The arts which were associated with Zen in China also swept Japan. Sculpture lost importance and painting using the bold brush stokes of the Chine Sung masters became popular.

From 1573, a succession o dictators imposed peace on Japan.. They built grand palaces, partly as fortresses and partly as symbols of their power. These palaces were decorated by large screens decorated with gold leaf and colourful paintings.

In the static and stratified society that these dictators created, different classes developed their own artistic styles. One that had considerable influence outside Japan was ukiyo-e (meaning “picture of the passing world”). This are mainly depicted popular courtesans and actors of the Kabuki theatre. Kabuki was the lusty, popular entertainment of the emerging middle class whereas the highly stylised No plays were patronised by the nobility and the rich.

The ukiyo-e artist drew his designs in ink with notations indicating colours to be applied. The design was then passed to a woodcutter who carved the design into a wooden block. This was given to a third craftsman printed the final work in its various colours.

Dozens of artists contributed to the popularity of printmaking but two 19th century artists, Katsushika Hokusai and Ando Hiroshige, were outstanding. Increasing social and political censorship, which ultimately resulted in the decline of the art, led Hokusai to focus on landscape painting and Hiroshige to paint birds, flowers and legendary scenes and well as landscapes.

"Fuji" by Hokusai
“Fuji” by Hokusai

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