With the aim of reviving ukiyo-e—traditional Japanese woodblock prints—, the UKIYO-E PROJECT was founded by Yuka Mitsui in 2014. She collected the best wooden block cutters and printers in order to produce contemporary designs using the traditional Japanese printing technique. Works by the UKIYO-E PROJECT are currently on view at the MAK Exhibition UKIYOENOW: Tradition and Experiment. For the MAK Blog Yuka gives an insight into the work of the UKIYO-E PROJECT.
Do you know what ukiyo-e is? Ukiyo-e is a woodblock print and it is a type of traditional Japanese craft, which has been popular in Japan since the 16th century. You have probably already seen The Great Wave with Mount Fuji by Katsushika Hokusai and other ukiyo-e by Utagawa Hiroshige or Tōshūsai Sharaku. Ukiyo-e is the most iconic and popular art of Japan.
Illustrator, woodcarver, and printer
Making ukiyo-e requires three artisans: the illustrator, the woodcarver, and the printer. All of their works are crafted by hand. However, due to the evolution of technology, such as cameras, newspapers, magazines, printers, and the internet, ukiyo-e has been replaced and its industry has been negatively affected. There are still ukiyo-e artisans today but their numbers have shrunk tremendously. There are only 9 woodcarvers and 30 printers left who master these skills, passed down from 400 years ago.
The approach of the UKIYO-E PROJECT
I founded the UKIYO-E PROJECT in 2014 to help pass these traditional skills down from the past to the present and on to the future. By the way, “Ukiyo” means “now” and “e” means “picture.” Therefore, ukiyo-e in the 16th century mainly depicted kabuki actors, sumo wrestlers, geisha girls, and popular landscapes of that time. Ukiyo-e has always depicted what was most trendy at the time. I wanted to stay true to this philosophy of ukiyo-e, and we believe that portraying today’s artists and pop icons on woodblock prints is the true style of contemporary ukiyo-e. We have collaborated with KISS, Iron Maiden, and David Bowie, and we have held exhibitions all over the world.
The UKIYO-E PROJECT at the MAK
I am extremely honoured for our ukiyo-e to be part of the MAK Asia Collection and to be on view at the current exhibition UKIYOENOW: Tradition and Experiment. Especially during a year of such historical importance: the 150th anniversary of Austrian-Japanese friendship.
The opening night overflowed with more than 1500 people, security at the entrance, and people queuing outside the museum. The following day, MAK DAY 2019, print master Tatsuya Ito presented woodblock printing demonstrations live, and I participated in a guided tour of UKIYOENOW, where I was happy to answer questions from curious attendees. Just as Western and Eastern artists have inspired each other since the Edo Period, I was touched by how the Austrian people were sincerely interested in ukiyo-e and came to visit the exhibition.
I hope to spread awareness of ukiyo-e so that people will have the chance to hold ukiyo-e in their hands and look closely at them: for ukiyo-e are woodblock prints, and it is fascinating to see the mastery of Japanese traditional woodcarving and printing with your own eyes and feel the warmth of the “washi” [handmade translucent paper from Japan] with your own hands.
A contribution by Yuka Mitsui, initiator of the UKIYO-E PROJECT