How to Look at Ukiyo-e: Pictures of the Floating World

© Copyright 2018 Ewan Matthews, Ryerson University.

Before Japan opened itself to the Western world in the mid-19th Century, before the fall of the Tokugawa Shogunate and the rapid industrialization of the island nation, woodblocks in the Ukiyo-e genre formed the height of artistic visual expression in Japan. Woodblocks are similar to woodcuts, but the process of the block’s creation allowed such details as flowing, calligraphic text.

Ukiyo-e translates to “pictures of the floating world” in Japanese, a name that will take on more meaning as we move through the image I have selected. In my search, I focused on a collection of woodprints by the artist Toyohiro Utagawa, who was born in 1773 and died in 1828, well before the West came crashing in. Eventually I convinced myself to focus on one striking work.

Let us examine a surimono by Utagawa. Surimono are small woodblock prints that were used for cards and calendars. By Utagawa’s time they also began to be paired with poems, which provided context or inspiration, and in this form were disseminated among the literati (K.T., 62). Surimono became such a lavish artform, made with the dust of precious metals like gold and silver, that the government had to prohibit printing practices with such expensive materials. The surimono below depicts an incense-burner beside a flute on a ceremonial stand, and a poem by a contemporary scrawled above.

Woodblock print. An incense-burner and a flute on a ceremonial stand with poem.
Utagawa, Toyohiro. “An incense-burner and a flute…”. Woodblock print nishiki-e on paper. The British Museum. Shared under CC-BY-NC-SA 4.0

How empty it is, no? So much white space, so much air. We are accustomed to seeing lines in the background that give us context: a horizon, the frame of a window or door, if we’re lucky even an identifying landmark or a person. The smoke from the incense drifts upwards, untouched by any breeze, and fades into seemingly dimensionless paper. There is almost no shading, and the scene is lit without a trace of shadows.

A trackless white background frames these objects in a space without a tangible reality or anchoring laws, epitomizing the name Ukiyo-e, “pictures of the floating world.” The eye is instead drawn to the red of the flute, the stark black of the table and the geometry of its silvery outlines. Colour in Japanese woodblock prints is added in a layered process. The original lines of the work are carved out in relief from a block of cherry wood, which is soft and malleable, like the pear or lime wood used for European woodcuts (“Woodblock (Scope note)”). In the nishiki-e technique, separate blocks are carved for each area in each colour, each inked separately, building up the scene section by section (“Japanese prints”). We can imagine a cherry block with only the relief of black that makes up the table, another with the light blue details, and yet another for the silver outlines.

From colour, the eye then wanders across the texture of the paper. This background is a topographical map of waves that can be seen in the cloth covering the stand, and it possesses a granularity that imbues the red flute with age, use, and history. If you and I could see the original print with the ultra-high definition of our own vision, I’m certain that texture would be deeper, and every wrinkle would sink into the paper like a river valley.

This is what we have. Objects, and paper.

“Unfair,” you may retort. “The context we need is in the poem. What does it say?”

You might not be wrong, but as long as I withhold that information, we are faced with a profound truth of the ‘floating world’. Isn’t it fascinating that by moving this image, and the objects within it, in and out of context, it takes on new layers of meaning? Or no meaning at all, if you choose. It is possible that the flute is key to the poem, to the unfolding story, the rhythm or the sonority. Maybe these objects are fragments of memories: an evening that lingered with Utagawa, a moment of quiet inspiration, or regret. Maybe they are perfectly ordinary: just a few markers of transient, everyday life, the sort of things that form daily rituals without thought, without passion. Take a moment and try to see past the paper, to the creation of the original stencilling. What might have been going on in Utagawa’s mind, to populate the infinite possibility of this floating world with these simple objects, sacred and profane?

If you can imagine an answer, then the image has worked. This small moment is now shared with you, and a man who lived almost two hundred years ago. Dreamlike, vast, and sparse… Ukiyo-e respects the power of blank space. I hope we can all appreciate what here is lost to the totality of the photograph.

Works Cited

Clarke, Michael, and Deborah Clarke. “Japanese prints.” The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Art Terms. 2nd ed., 2010, Accessed 11 Feb. 2018.

K. T. “Surimono: Social Cards of Old Japan.” Museum of Fine Arts Bulletin, vol. 20, no. 121, 1922, pp. 62–63. JSTOR,

Clarke, Michael, and Deborah Clarke. “Ukiyo-e.” The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Art Terms. 2nd ed., 2010, Accessed 11 Feb. 2018.

Utagawa, Toyohiro. An incense-burner and a flute on a ceremonial stand with poem by Saburotei Tekichiku about autumn. N.d., woodblock print, nishiki-e on paper, The British Museum, Accessed 11 Feb. 2018.

“Woodblock (Scope note).” The British Museum, Accessed 11 Feb. 2018.

Images in this online exhibit are either in the public domain or being used under fair dealing for the purpose of research and are provided solely for the purposes of research, private study, or education.