Ukiyo-e, or literally ‘prints of the transient world’, is the term used for the Japanese colour woodcuts that Van Gogh so greatly admired.
This ‘transient world’ alluded primarily to the urban culture of Edo (modern-day Tokyo). Daily city life under the rule of the elite appeared to primarily revolve around the amusement and pleasure facilitated by the many brothels and kabuki theatres.
Actors and beautiful women
It is therefore not surprising that actors and beautiful women were often chosen as the subject of ukiyo-e.
However, in the course of the 19th century, an increasing number of landscape prints, prints of birds and flowers and portraits of warriors were published.
A thriving industry
Van Gogh had a romanticised image of Japanese print artists. He saw them as something akin to monks, fully at one with nature, cutting and printing their woodcuts in complete isolation.
However, the reality was that the ukiyo-e were a thriving commercial industry. A streamlined process meant that it was possible to mass produce thousands of woodcuts per design. The publisher commissioned the artist, whose design was realised on a huge scale in studios packed with draughtsman, block cutters and printers.
Once the artist had completed his design, it was stuck to a block of wood that had been sanded to make it smooth. The remainder of the process required the expertise of various craftsmen, who had to work as a well-oiled machine. One craftsman started by cutting out the rough outline, before the details were added by another craftsman (or multiple other craftsmen).
Numerous blocks were required to produce a print: one for each colour. All of these blocks had to be printed exactly on top of each other, so the printer had to work everything out precisely. He also needed to print the surfaces evenly and ensure that the colours were aligned correctly.