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Kimono in Art

Although images of Kimono can be found historically on screens, ceramics and in paintings, it is in the Ukiyo-e genre of woodblock prints that Kimono can be seen in all their infinitude of detail and ornamentation. Intricate motifs of landscape and townscape combine in tales of myth and history, the life of the Imperial Court and the lives of courtesans and the world of the theatre, in particular, the spectacular Art of Kabuki and of course, the splendour and ritual of Sumo.

This is the “floating world” of Ukiyo-e, clearly delineated from the mundanities of everyday life. A world of aesthetic appreciation, contemplation, and celebration of nature and the arts.

The art form grew rapidly because, as wood-block prints, the images could be mass produced and for the first time ordinary townspeople could own a work of art that depicted many familiar aspects of their society. Previously, this had been the privilege of the wealthy, who alone could afford to purchase or commission original paintings.

The original prints of Hishikawa Moronobu (1618 – 1694) depicted Ukiyo-e only as monochrome prints using Indian ink. By the 18th century however, Suzuki Harunobu developed polychromatic printing to produce the exquisite Nishiki-e, which depict Kimono so intricately, within its cultural and historical context.

A Brief History

Two distinct periods categorize the development of Ukiyo-e. Initially, the Edo Period (1603 – 1868) in which Ukiyo-e has its roots. This was followed by the Meiji period (1868 – 1912) when Japan became open to outside influences and which often saw a fusion of both Kimono and items of “Western” dress.

The history of Ukiyo-e is rooted in the urbanisation of Japanese Society that took place towards the end of the 16th century. This gave rise to the development of a new class of artisans and merchants who themselves began to write and paint. They compiled “E-hon” which were picture and story books which were often illustrated by Ukiyo-e prints.

The most popular depictions of Kimono however can be seen in the single-sheet prints used as posters or postcards and freely available at a reasonable price.

The popularity of Ukiyo-e dwindled towards the end of the Meiji Era and new print forms (Sosaku-hanga) subscribed to western concepts of creativity and featured Kimono less and less.

The advent of photography forms a record of early 20th century clothing in Japan, but it is the Ukiyo-e that give us a spectacular glimpse into the world of Kimono.

We hope this is a glimpse into the exquisite and mythical world of Kimono – May the journey continue –

Artists of Note:

Ando Hiroshige: (1797 – 1858)
Hishikawa Moronobu (1618 – 1694)
Katsushika Hokusai (1760 – 1849)
Utagawa Toyokuni (1786 – 1865)
Suzuki Harunobu (1724 – 1770)
Kitagawa Utamaro (1753 – 1806)



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