Admire traditional ukiyo-e prints and make new discoveries at the Sumida Hokusai Museum

“Ukiyo-e,” the art form that influenced late 19th century European art

Ukiyo-e is a very popular Japanese art genre,which found expression mostly in woodblock prints and color prints, originated and flourished in Japan between the 16th and the mid 19th century (Edo period), at the time when Japan broke off diplomatic relations. Its subjects are mostly every-day life scenes, landscapes, sumo wrestlers and popular actors. In the mid 16th century wood-block made it possible to produce prints in large amounts so that they could be picked up and enjoyed by everyone, just like today’s magazines. From the mid 19th century downward, led by French art world, “Japonism”, a unique artistic style heavily influenced by ukiyo-e became a prominent trend in Europe. Many famous artists such as Monet, Gogh, Lautrec, Renoir and Degas have left us several paintings which were clearly influenced by ukiyo-e prints.

(Left) La Japonaise (1875-1976), painting by Monet / (Right) The courtesan (1887), painting by Van Gogh
(Left) “La Japonaise” (1875-1976), painting by Monet / (Right) “The courtesan” (1887), painting by Van Gogh

Katsushika Hokusai’s appealing sense of design

Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849) is one of the most famous ukiyo-e painters. Hokusai’s works are believed to exceed 30,000 pieces and the most striking characteristic of his art is its stylishness of design. Consider the series of prints titled “Fugaku Sanjurokkei”(Thirty-six Views of Mt Fuji) one of his most representative works, which depict views of Mount Fuji from various scenic spots in Japan; but when you actually visit these spots, you realize that Mount Fuji does not necessarily look the way it was represented by Hokusai. What Hokusai did was to temporarily freeze in his memory what he saw, break it down into a series of motifs, and then reconstruct it once again onto the canvas. For example, in “Bishu Fujimi-ga-hara”(Fujimi-ga-hara [Fuji-view Moor] in Owari Province) in the “Fugaku Sanjurokkei” series, Mount Fuji is shown as a small triangular form inside a large circle tub, a very geometrical representation which would not look out of place in a modern art museum. Mt. Fuji, however, is not visible from the area painted in this picture (present day Naka ward, Nagoya City, Aichi Prefecture). To Hokusai it was simply a “design” element.

Fugaku Sanjurokkei (Thirty-Six Views of Mt. Fuji ) : Bishu Fujimi-ga-hara (Fujimi-ga-hara [Fuji-view Moor] in Owari Province) (circa 1830-32), painting by Katsushika Hokusai
“Fugaku Sanjurokkei (Thirty-Six Views of Mt. Fuji ) : Bishu Fujimi-ga-hara”(Fujimi-ga-hara [Fuji-view Moor] in Owari Province) (circa 1830-32), painting by Katsushika Hokusai

In addition to woodblock prints, other notable prints exhibited at the Sumida Hokusai Museum include “Hokusai Manga,” which is said to be the at the origin of modern Japanese “manga” comics, and the “Shingata komon-cho” (Book of New Patterns), which contains more than a hundred patterns which were to serve as models for designing motifs on fabric for kimonos. Come and immerse yourself in the world of Hokusai, sophisticated yet full of sense of humor, in the place where he was born.

The Sumida Hokusai Museum was designed by prominent architect Kazuyo Sejima
The Sumida Hokusai Museum was designed by prominent architect Kazuyo Sejima

Sumida Hokusai Museum

Address: 2-7 Kamezawa, Sumida-ku, Tokyo

Access: a 5-minute walk from Ryogoku Station on the Toei Oedo Line