Hashira-e: 18th Century Pillar Prints

Written by
Ronin Gallery
Published on
September 7, 2014 at 5:46:07 AM PDT September 7, 2014 at 5:46:07 AM PDTth, September 7, 2014 at 5:46:07 AM PDT

The second half of the 18th century was the golden age of innovation in ukiyo-e. During this period, woodblock print artists experimented with a variety new techniques and sizes. The most unique of these formats was the long, narrow hashira-e, or the pillar print. This new size allowed for compositions that brimmed with grace and emotion, employing negative space and vertical dynamism to great effect. And while these more unusual sizes presented their own challenges to the printing process, they also allowed the artist to be experimental, imaginative and innovative with the design's compositional space. Hashira-e were often pasted to the pillars in traditional Japanese homes, and as such, they were exposed to smoke and dust, making those that have survived exceedingly precious works of art.

During the 18th century's golden age of artistic innovation, woodblock print artists experimented with coloring, line, composition, and print format, developing works of art that stand among the most unique and inventive images in ukiyo-e. Some of the rarest and most exciting prints from this period are hashira-e, or pillar prints.

The 18th century was the renaissance of the prosperous and relatively peaceful Edo period. The increasingly centralized power of the shogun was accompanied by the creation of highly codified classes, producing the outward appearance of social stability. The merchant class, or chonin, progressively became the generative force of popular culture. Their increasing wealth could be used in highly delineated urban quarters of pleasure and consumption within the city of Edo. These exciting, new, and diverse places where classes could comingle progressively became the driving force behind the subject and style of Japanese woodblock printing. Developments in printing techniques, like the ability to print in multiple colors (nishiki-e), also made individual sheet prints more and more popular among the wealthy rising class and everyday consumers alike. The images became brighter, more colorful, complex, and reflected the everyday culture of urban Japan: the Kabuki theatre, beautiful women of the pleasure quarters, freedom of travel, and other aspects of the 'floating world.' Artists of this period, inspired by the vibrancy of their audience, experimented voraciously.

In traditional ukiyo-e, the size of the print is an integral, if overlooked, component of the finished work of art. The sakura, or cherry tree, was the preferred wood for the printing blocks, and therefore the size of the block was generally dictated by the diameter of the tree. Due to these restrictions, several standard print sizes quickly developed. The most common sizes are the oban and chuban sizes, approximately 10 by 15 inches and 7.5 by 10 inches, respectively. The less common formats tend to be either long and narrow, or wider and taller overall, or smaller and square, and while these more unusual sizes present their own challenges to the printing process, they also allow the ukiyo-e artist to be experimental, imaginative, and innovative within the design's compositional limitations.

The hashira-e (sometimes hashirae-ban), or pillar print, is the rarest of these unusual print formats. At a size of approximately 4 by 28 inches, it is the narrowest of the Edo period prints. Its exaggerated verticality and slim width was originally intended for decoration of the interior supporting pillars in traditional Japanese architecture, hence the name, "pillar prints." Artists soon realized that the format itself was freeing and full of potential. This allowed for compositions brimmed with the grace and emotion of artfully employed negative space and vertical dynamism. Subjects range from the traditional renderings of bijin (beautiful women), to legendary figures and heroes, to birds and flowers, but always the narrow plane of the hashira-e provided a daring space for artistic imagination and expression.

This exhibition features work by the best artists of the golden age of ukiyo-e: Harunobu, Koryusai, Utamaro, Kiyonaga, Eishi, and Masanobu. Harunobu's tall and slender bijin were ideally suited to the narrow format of the pillar print, and Koryusai took Harunobu's graceful compositions of women and transformed them into a body of work that is unrivaled in its stately, majestic elegance; Kiyonaga is regarded as the period's other great artist of beautiful women. Utamaro's hashira-e are perhaps the most complex compositions of the time, incorporating portraiture into the undulating S-curve that serves the narrow, vertical format so well. Masanobu's pillar print designs are extremely rare, and feature the bold lines and dynamic compositions that speak to the exuberance of the artistic period.

Because of their unusual format, and the fact that they were often used in the home where they would be exposed to smoke and dirt, well-preserved hashira-e today are quite rare and exceedingly precious. This exhibition of these unique prints demonstrates the enormous versatility and groundbreaking innovation of the artists of the golden age.


Featured Artists

EISHI (1756 - 1829)

Born into a samurai family of the Fujiwara clan, Eishi resided in Edo and was educated in the grand tradition of Kano-school painting. He became a court painter and high court official to the Tokugawa shogun Ieharu, working in the court approved Kano style. At around the age of thirty, Eishi left the court and began working in ukiyo-e. Initially influenced by the Torii school, he soon found inspiration in Utamaro's work and began producing bijin-ga, pictures of beautiful women. As Eishi's style developed, he soon settled into a style of his own, defined by aristocratic elegance and refinement; his women tall, lean, and elegant. It is said that his prints were so highly regarded by the time of his death in 1829 that even the imperial family sought to own them.

HARUNOBU (1725 - 1770)

Suzuki Harunobu is considered to be one of the finest ukiyo-e artists of the early golden age of woodblock printing. He is accredited with the important innovation of nishiki-e: "brocade prints" that are distinguished by their rich, complex, and saturated application of color. It is reported that the innovator Shigenaga was his teacher, but most of his early pieces show no indication of this. Instead, it seems as if he drew inspiration from Sukenobu, the Kyoto based print designer who was known for his depictions of actors and beautiful women. Harunobu's own innovative approach to printing catapulted him to fame and he became well known for his elegant women, light and airy compositions, and his depictions of simple pleasures in everyday Edo-period life.

KORYUSAI (active 1769 - 1788)

Koryusai was born into the samurai class in the middle of the 18th century. However, despite his privileged background he chose to study the art of woodblock printing. Many of his subjects were was drawn from history and literature and featured studies of bijin-ga. His style was greatly inspired by Harunobu, yet still remained distinct, as Koryusai's own work was less dreamlike and used different color palettes. In the tradition of hashira-e, no other artist is more prolific than Koryusai: his long, narrow compositions feature the majestic, stately figures of beautiful women, arranged into sensual, undulating compositions.

KIYONAGA (1752 - 1815)

Born in Uraga to a bookseller, Kiyonaga moved to Edo in 1765 and began his art education under the direction of Torii Kiyomatsu. Following the death of his master, he was adopted into the Torii family and is generally considered the last great member of the Torii school. Kiyonaga was a major printmaker during late 18th century Edo; his work had great influence on other artists and he is recognized for his intelligent use of color and the elegance of his bijin-ga. In 1787, Kiyonaga arranged for the Torii school to design kabuki signboards that would eventually lead to their virtual monopoly over the industry.

KITAO MASANOBU (1761 - 1816)

Masanobu was born and lived in Edo where during his formative years he studied under the great "chameleon" print artist, haikai master, and shodo calligrapher Kitao Shigemasa. Masanobu was also known as the famous Edo period writer and poet Santo Kyoden, publishing dozens of kibyoshi, or humorous and satirical illustrated books. Masanobu's work drew on new printing techniques and his own pioneering use of western perspective to produce works on a wide range of subject matter. He is seen as one of the most inspirational artists of his generation.