The landscape of Japanese myth is populated with all manner of ghosts, demons, the dead, and odd creatures, much of it detailed in several centuries worth of Ukiyo-e art. In Ronin Gallery’s latest exhibition, Ghosts, Demons and the Bizarre, dozens of woodblock prints and paintings by Japanese artists, including masters Kuniyoshi and Yoshitosi, explore the more fantastical realms of the imaginative art form known as Ukiyo-e or “pictures of the floating world”.
As Ronin Gallery’s David Taro Libertson tells The Creators Project, Ukiyo-e typically featured landscapes, beautiful women, nature, and famous fictional or historical figures, but these pictures of the floating world also included Yokai or ghosts, which were among the art form’s most common subjects.
“The term Yokai comes from the Japanese symbols for weird or strange and are a class of supernatural monsters prevalent in Japanese folklore,” Libertson says. “While Yokai are depicted as having the capacity to bring good fortune and act as nightmarish omens, they are almost universally depicted as mischievous bordering on comical.”
“More often than not they appear as something vaguely humanoid with animal traits,” he adds. “However, there are many Yokai that look like household objects and even some that have no tangible appearance at all.”
Ukiyo-e, as Libertson explains, originated in China. The woodblock printmaking arrived in Japan alongside Buddhism during the 6th century. Though the technique was used to communicate Buddhist scripture, by the 17th century printmaking served as a medium in the country’s artistic renaissance.
This coincided with the ruling power lying in Edo (modern day Tokyo) during the Tokugawa Shogunate, which was based in Kyoto. Merchants and consumers flowed into Edo at this time. And since they were barred from entering Japan’s samurai culture, the townspeople (chonin), developed their own culture—the “floating world”—which revolved around kabuki theaters and Yoshiwra, Edo’s legalized prostitution district. Ukiyo-e, or pictures of the floating world, emerged around 1660 in the form of monochrome prints, and tended to have erotic themes.
Libertson says this primitive period, with masters like Moronubu and Masanobu, were known for elegant and vital lines. By 1700, the first color prints emerged, which were hand-colored with vegetable-based pigments. A costly process, these pigments were replaced in 1765 by full color prints, and by 1810 artists were depicting actors as individuals rather than roles.
Because the Tenpo Reforms forbid depictions of Edo’s brightest stars in the mid-19th century, Libertson says that famous place pictures (Meisho-e) filled the gap. Around the same time, easing of travel restrictions and the ubiquity of landscape prints—like those by Hokusai and Hiroshige, both of whom appear in the exhibition—fueled what Libertson calls a national wanderlust.
“Alongside Meisho-e, Yokai (legendary prints of ghosts, spirits, magic, etc) and Musha-e (warrior prints) sidestepped the Tenpo restrictions,” Libertson says. “As the Tokugawa Shogunate weakened, anti-authoritarian legends gained popularity. After the fall of the shogunate and the rise of the Meiji Emperor in the early 20th century, woodblock printmaking became a medium of politicization and propaganda. Western clothing and inventions spoke to the rapid modernization avidly encouraged by the emperor.”
One of the undisputed masters of Ukiyo-e is Kuniyoshi Utagawa, and several of his works appear in Ghosts, Demons and the Bizarre. Born in Edo to a silk dyer, Kuniyoshi first studied art under Shunei, then began studying woodblock printing under Toyokuni I at age 14. Three years later he left Toyokuni’s studio to work as an independent artist.
In 1827, Kuniyoshi released his dramatic series 108 Heroes of the Suikoden, which depicted famous samurai and other legendary heroes of Japan. The public loved the work, so Kuniyoshi began championing the fierce and fantastical in his brand of Ukiyo-e.
“He had a ravenous imagination and the full scope of his work reveals an aesthetic sensibility capable of assimilating almost any experience,” says Libertson. “No doubt, however, his particular genius felt most at home in the world of martial glory, where epic battles decided the fate of empires and fierce warriors clashed to the death. His imagery was so popular in his time that he received requests for tattoo designs.”
Yoshitoshi Tsukioka lived a more tumultuous life. One of the last great masters of Ukiyo-e, he studied under Yosai, and suffered several mental breakdowns, one of which resulted in a stay at the Sugamo Asylum. Yoshitoshi’s breakthrough came in 1885 with 100 Aspects of the Moon, a series of 100 beautifully rendered prints that explored Japanese and Chinese legend with old and new techniques as Japan was rapidly modernizing.
“Yoshitoshi’s work is known for its eerie and imaginative component,” Libertson says. “His considerable imagination and originality imbued his prints with a sensitivity and honesty rarely seen in Ukiyo-e of this time period. From ghost stories to folktales, graphic violence to the gentle glow of the moon, Yoshitoshi not only offers compositional and technical brilliance, but also unfettered passion.”
The imagination and technical ability included in Ghosts, Demons and the Bizarre is often stunning, as is the range of the works’ subject matter. Horiyoshi III’s Namakubi in Winter will gross viewers out with its depiction of a decapitated head hung from a tree. But the next minute they will be astounded by something like the spectral beauty of Yūshin’s double exposure-esque Ghost Lanterns. Whatever the reaction, viewers will enjoy this look back at Japan’s rich artistic history.
Click here fore more information on the works in Ronin Gallery’s Ghosts, Demons and the Bizarre exhibition.