In Edo Japan, the 'lower class' was traditionally taken up by merchants, those engaged in trading occupied the 'shomin' caste, right at the bottom of the social rung. Often dealing with money, in a country as tied to spirituality and decency as feudal Japan was, meant they were scorned as parasites of society. Through the art of Ukiyo-e, we are able to see that their situation was rather more complex than simply being greedy vendors.
During Japan's Edo period, from 1603 to 1868, when the country was ruled by the Tokugawa shogunate, the caste system was a clear social indicator of where you stood and how you were viewed by others. During this period though, the merchant class managed to emancipate the pejorative shackles that bound them to their reputation as society's dregs.
In Edo Japan - as Tokyo was formerly known, the differences and importance of class seperation was paramount to all social interactions. Galvanised by a lengthy period of modernisation and increased social mobility, the merchant class took advantage of their socioeconomic background to enjoy pleasures in life they had previously been deprived of.
Classes weren't allowed to mix. It was looked down upon as dirtying your lineage and jeopardising your own social rank. Still, unperturbed by these limits, the merchant class began to mingle with the Samurais, adopting their hairstyles and even beginning to wear the famous silk komonos - having previously only been allowed to sport the garb in cotton. Most importantly though, financial freedom granted them access to a more hedonistic lifestyle - able to attend sumo wrestling events, theatre and popular haiku and literary clubs.
The merchant class's presence, unbeknownst at the time, had cataclysmic repercussions on the future shape of Japan. Being ordinary people now mixing with those 'above', the dissolution of social barriers began and the idea of a caste system became more fluid and eventually, an archaic notion.
Capturing this era of change was the artistic genre of Ukiyo-e, which portrayed the events partaken in by the merchants, having the cumulative effect of encouraging a dawn of great artistic growth more attuned and accessible to the common person.
Ukiyo-e translates literally to 'pictures of the floating world' and captured everything from everyday events to erotica, landscapes, history and folklore. The indulgent lifestyle was the 'floating world' inhabited by the merchant class, where pleasure districts provided geishas and theatre for entertainment. With their newfound economic possibilities came the eagerness to display this wealth and, now able to afford art, Ukiyo-e became an in-demand commodity.
Predominantely woodblock prints and paintings, the earliest popular phenomenon in this genre came from artist Moronobu whose early monochromatic works of beautiful women were pioneering and indicative of what was to come. Over time the images became more complex, with multiple coloured layers being transposed, notably in the works of Masanobu - nearly a century later.
During the 1760s, Harunobu's full coloured prints led to a sort of standardisation in the quality and expectation of production. Becoming the prevailing artform that endured the Edo period, it culminated in the death of two of the forms masters - Hokusai and Hiroshige.
Responsible for some of Japan's most iconic artworks, particularly Hokusai's iconic Great Wave Off Kanagawa, their works were the pinnacle of a genre that began as a form of documentary, for the merchant's to be reminded of what they were now able to indulge in - for their achievements to be displayed around their homes for themselves and guests alike. By the end of the 19th century, it wasn't just a popular artform, but a culturally significant one.
Just as Ukiyo-e highlighted the incoming change of Japanese society, so too did its steep decline usher in another new era. After the Edo period came the Meiji Restoration known for rapid social and technological advances that deemed the genre as dated.
Alongside being an indicator of how the Japanese viewed themselves, it was an inroads for Western cultures in their ability to understand a society so far removed from their own. Japan's artistic styles soon bled into Western ones, particularly for early Impressionists like Monet and Degas.
Subsequent moments of recurring popularity have occured, with the 'new prints' genre which were aimed at the new Western audience and eventually Sōsaku-hanga - the 'creative print' scene that is still ongoing, where the artist often designs, carves and prints the pieces, regularly utilising Western techniques.
Ukiyo-e is a fantastic resource for historians in understanding the Japan of old, but it's also emblematic of the power art holds in society - as a powerful tool of social exlusion/inclusion capable of redefining perspectives on the world around us. Besides that, their calming and minimalist appeal is hard to ignore.
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