Kelsey Ashe has collaborated with the Fremantle Fashion Collective (FFC) to create a series of 'ukiyo-e' inspired Illustrations that relate to the Fremantle Fashion Designer collections on display at PS Artspace in October 2017.
The limited edition series of illustrative works were exhibited at PS ArtSpace during the FFC event, followed by a one-night only exhibitin at Fremantle's Old Round House in the West End of Fremantle.
The term ukiyo-e, with its underlying meaning of ‘floating world pictures’, is synonymous with the hedonistic gratification and bourgeois culture of the Edo era in Japan.
The genre developed and flourished in the economic and cultural conditions of the period, particularly in the eighteenth century. The distinctive Japanese ukiyo-e woodblock print is recognised by its peculiar stylistic character of polychromatic, often ornately patterned compositions of clear linear quality and descriptive mode of representation.
Some artists painted their ukiyo-e; however, this version of the medium still contained the characteristic woodblock
type appearance of delineated outlines and sharp patterns.
Ukiyo was originally a word associated with Buddhism in the middle ages, pertaining to the vanity of human passions, the evanescence of life and the longing for an idealised world and after-life (Faulkner and Lane 1991).
The novel of 1661 by Asai Ryōi, Ukiyo Monogatari; Tales of the Floating World, explains the idea as:
"Living only for the moment, savouring the moon, the snow, the cherry blossoms, and the maple leaves, singing songs, drinking sake, and diverting oneself just in floating, unconcerned by the
prospect of imminent poverty, buoyant and carefree, like a gourd carried along with the river current: this is what we call ukiyo.".
(Ryōi, quoted in Hickman 1978, 5-6)
During the increasingly metropolitan and urbane Edo era, the connotations of the term ukiyo-e came to encompass the self-indulgent, stylish world of pleasure for the large population of chonin, or everyday townsfolk of Edo (now modern Tokyo). The upper classes and members of the Imperial court (kuge) and
samurai bushi (warrior class of military nobility) considered ukiyo-e plebeian, something you could buy for the same price as a bowl of soup (Hara 2014).
Social expectations for the upper classes dictated propriety and therefore a preference for the esteemed classicism of traditional Japanese Rinpa, Nanga
and Nagasaki Schools of painting, of which production remained in place alongside ukiyo-e in the Edo
period (Harris 2012).
Ukiyo-e prints depicted actors from the Noh and Kabuki theatre in elaborate costumes, geisha (courtesans from the brothels), bijin (beautiful women) and actresses who helped perpetuate the latestfashions in hair, makeup and kimono. The prints were also used as posters to promote teahouses, fashion
and textile designs and a variety of merchant produce; to illustrate travel guides, calendars, story books;
to provide botanical illustrations and shunga (erotic paraphernalia).
Ukiyo-e is inextricably linked with the
area in Edo called Yoshiwara, a designated brothel and entertainment district which was the ‘centre of an
urban counter culture that governed the sophisticated stylistic canons standing in contrast to mainstream society … the Yoshiwara was enveloped in a highly idealized mystique … a magical place, populated by beautiful women’ (Chock 2014, 64).
The ukiyo-e seller/publisher provided an immersive retail experience, with new prints in constant production to meet demand. The prints were inexpensive and mass-produced, providing Edo’s
citizens with a source of visual pleasure, functioning in a very similar way to contemporary societies’ insatiable consumption of magazines, social media feeds and picture books of brightly coloured images of beautiful celebrities, new products, artful graphic design and avante-garde culture.
Ukiyo-e favoured intensely hued colour applied in precisely defined shapes of flat colour which emphasised the geometric patterning of the entire picture plane.
Flat areas of colour are often broken up into intricately detailed areas of repeating patterns depicting kimono or segments of landscapes or interiors in a highly stylised manner. The shapes often contrast with vast areas of negative space creating a sharp contrast between areas of crowded detail and open space,
or dilute areas of colour in simple black line contrast with intense areas of patterned colour.
The ivory colour of the paper is also used within the picture plane to imply flat bands or stacked zone-like spaces.
Using fine black outline, detailed networks of pattern and space interact and define movements of figures,
landscapes, gestures and surface decorations.
Dynamic spatial arrangements and tensions are created within the precision of line making, which can be as fine as single threads of hair or plant foliage. Ukiyoe always tends towards asymmetry which further enhances the tension or stillness vital to the character
of the medium.
Usually quite small and able to be held in hand, the shallow space and sharp perspective of the images were able to be taken in by the eye at once, contributing to the tight cohesion of the overall image. Adding to the sense of dense shallow space was the tendency to crop compositions or pictorial devices, spreading figures or landscapes beyond the boundaries of the picture plane, even when spread over a triptych (D. Bell 2002).
The artist’s signature in calligraphy, the publisher’s hanmoto (a stamp, seal
or trademark), plus a calligraphic title and sometimes a mon (family crest), usually artfully placed within a negative space, added to the overall balance and complexity of the image.
A characteristic found in any ukiyo-e that depicts cloth is the intricate patterning of kimono (full length robe), obi (belt) and kosode (basic robe or inner garment), noren (curtain), futon (bedding) or other
decorated surface. This delight in pattern and ornament has been the most persuasive and influential element of ukiyo-e on my creative practice. The extent to which the artisans of the Edo period mastered the art of applying intricate and multiple layered decoration to a variety of everyday objects, whilst
maintaining a sense of overall balance and cohesion is staggering and a quality I often try to achieve in my
The interconnection between the textile designs depicted and the overall print was achieved because ukiyo-e artists were employed as textile and pattern designers, creating large books of
pattern designs for artisans called hinagatabon (design compendium) (Harris 2012). In the cash economy
of Edo, artists were employed by kimono shops, dyers and fabric producers to produce books of designs
which could then be applied to a variety of objects (Harris 2012). For example, Kitagawa Utamaro, who
was a prolific ukiyo-e artist, produced innumerable bijin-ga (beautiful women pictures) which depicted his
textile designs for Kyoto shopkeepers as well as pattern books of textile designs. It was always one of
ukiyo-e’s functions to keep stylish Edoites well informed of the latest fashions (D. Bell 2002).
Utamaro for example, has depicted up to 20 individual patterns which contrast within rhythmical sweeps of line within one image to define elements of the figures’ outfits and their material objects. The patterns are concentrated into an asymmetrical compact area of shapes within the overall composition, with large areas of completely
empty space surrounding the figures allowing a visual pause for the patterns to vibrate harmoniously
without seeming to blur or become indistinct. The patterns have a colour palette which is pleasantly
tonal, although many ukiyo-e artists used clashing colours and patterns whilst maintaining cohesion of
the overall image Fine details such as the fringing on the sash or the courtesan’s
hair and finger movements are all clearly defined, adding to the complexity of the image. There is a
simplicity and quietness in the image, despite the extravagant array of patterning, another characteristic
that ukiyo-e artists regularly achieved
All works are Mixed Media on Cotton Paper, 851 x 594mm