Resource: Ukiyo-e.org

Two Beauties with Bamboo Utamaro, c. 1795

Ukiyo-e, Japanese woodblock prints, hold an esteemed place as one of the most well-known and prolific Japanese arts, having exploded in popularity in the early modern period (1603-1868) and become a great source of inspiration to many artists overseas. The number and types of prints that survive are innumerable, and today we will briefly introduce one fantastic resource for researching or just exploring ukiyo-e prints online.

Ukiyo-e.org was created in 2012 by John Resig, a computer programmer and woodblock print lover who has worked to make vast amounts of images and information on ukiyo-e prints available globally. His database collects and catalogs prints, aggregating data in a variety of ways. As Resig lays out on his site, there are several major features of the database:

  • A database of Japanese woodblock print images and metadata aggregated from a variety of museums, universities, libraries, auction houses, and dealers around the world.
  • An indexed text search engine of all the metadata provided by the institutions about the prints.
  • An image search engine of all the images in the database, searchable by uploading an image of a print.
  • Each print image is analyzed and compared against all other print images in the database. Similar prints are displayed together for comparison and analysis.
  • Multiple copies of the same print are automatically lined up with each other and made viewable in a gallery for easy comparison.
  • The entire web site, and all artist information contained within it, is available in both English and Japanese, aiding international researchers.

One of the wonderful features of this site is the ability to eye keyword search or upload an image, which then goes through a process of image comparison to find similar prints. This has led to previously undiscovered versions of certain ukiyo-e to come to light, and is not only immensely useful for researchers, but downright fascinating for everybody. Once searched, the results also show up with similar prints, allowing the user to explore variants or copies of the image input.

Once you click to the individual print pages, initially the basic information (artist, title, date, source) is visible, but if you click on “details,” a huge cache of metadata becomes available by linking back directly to the original holder of the print (museum, university, etc). Production place, materials, inscriptions, inscription types, associated locations and topics—an enormous amount about each individual piece is available, and the collection of the database networking this information is surely growing every day.

Aside from author, term, title, or image searches, the splash page of the site is also broken up into rough periods of time with exemplars showcased, and includes: Early Ukiyo-e (Early-Mid 1700s), Birth of Full-Color Printing (1740s to 1780s), Golden Age of Ukiyo-e (1780 to 1804), Popularization of Woodblock Printing (1804 to 1868), Meiji Period (1868 to 1912), Shin Hanga and Sosaku Hanga Movements (1915 to 1940s), and Modern and Contemporary (1950s to Now). These divisions allow the users to see the changes in taste and technical developments over time, aided by visual representations.

The “Sources” page also allows you to filter your ukiyo-e searches by the holding institution, which is convenient for not only seeing the sheer breadth of surviving ukiyo-e, but being able to hone in on local sites where you can enjoy them. Also linked are auction houses and other digital databases where you can peruse the prints in digital form to your heart’s content.

The site is fully bilingual in English and Japanese, and also includes a blog where Resig posts his own thoughts on the style, materiality, or other information on the images in his database. Overall ukiyo-e.org has a seemingly endless amount of information for print researchers or enthusiasts, so be sure to check it out!

About Paula

Paula lives in the vortex of graduate life. She studies medieval Japanese history.
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