The Road To Psychedelia: The Most American Art Genre

Part I: Ukiyo-e And The Impressionists

Psychedelia is making yet another comeback. At times of social change throughout human history the themes within psychedelic art pop up in culture to inspire the current generation with the echos of great change from the past.

Psychedelia has been an influence on my art and music so I thought I would go into an explanation of its origins and where we can look for it in everyday application. Its been a long road that brought us from 17th century wood block prints all the way to the artwork of Victor Moscoco. Its an art history trip that stretches 400 years and all the way from feudal Japan to Dark Matter Coffee Co to even our own website. So I am going to break it up into a multi-part series of posts. From the primordial ooze of hedonic art in Japanese Ukiyo-e through the drug movement of the 60’s to it’s use in corporate advertising and children’s cartoons today, here is the story of psychedelic art.

Pictures Of The Floating World

Night Rain at the Double-Shelf Stand, from the series Eight Parlor Views by Zashiki hakkei, 1766

The long strange trip of Psychadelia begins in feudal Japan around the time of the 19th century. Thats right, Japan. The land of the rising sun. By the 19th century, Japan had been closed off to the western world for a little over 200 years. In 1853, The U.S. sent a fleet of war ships to Japan to “negotiate” trade relations. Before very long, Japan had signed a trade deal with the U.S. and essentially reopened Japan to the western world. This resulted in a surge in interest surrounding Japanese culture in Europe and the U.S. called Japonisme. The artwork that had been honed In feudal Japanese culture for centuries was shown to the world for the first time and had a massive impact on artists of the time. This style of art was called Ukiyo-e.

Ukiyo-e (pronounced you-key-oh-aye), means “pictures of the floating world.” It was an artistic movement that developed in Japan between the 17th and 19th centuries. It dealt strictly with the idea of living for the present. A hedonic world view that depicted every day upper middle class life at the time. A Japanese writer in the 17th century described Ukiyo-e as, “living only for the moment, turning our full attention to the pleasures of cherry blossoms; singing songs, drinking wine, diverting ourselves in just floating, floating; …, like a gourd floating along with the river current.”

The scenes depicted in Ukiyo-e woodblock prints are usually centered around the two main scenarios of “the floating world.” One being kabuki theater and the other being the world of the courtesan. This was a very sharp contrast to the formal and conservative art that was being produced across the world in Europe at the time.

Influence On The Impressionists

Left: James McNeill Whistler, Nocturne: Blue and Gold – Old Battersea Bridge, 1872-5, Right: Utagawa Hiroshige, Bamboo Yards, Kyobashi Bridge from One Hundred Views of Edo, 1857

By the mid 19th century artists in Europe were becoming burned out on the stuffy subject matter of the boroque and neoclassical movements that had dominated the art world since the renaissance. Scenes of ornate grandeur and rich nobility had become common place. The everyday scenes depicted in the realist movement were springing up to take their place. While realism took a step forward in creativity, it was still rooted in the neoclassical and baroque movements that had dominated the previous century and were still lingering in the universities and academia of the time. 

This is about the time that artists like Monet and Pissarro, who were big fans and collectors of the newly imported Japanese Ukiyo-e prints, had begun pushing the boundaries of context in realist art by playing with and exaggerating color relationships and conceptualizing the situations depicted within the art from an otherworldly sort of gaze. This new movement was dubbed “Impressionism” by a snotty critic in a negative review of Monet’s work of genius; Impression, Sunrise. The painting that began the impressionist movement.

The Wheels Are Set In Motion

 What the impressionists found in Ukiyo-e was the permission to create art for the sake of art. Rather than be bogged down and tethered to reality, they began employing the use of strange angles seen in Ukiyo-e as well as the everyday common man subject matter. Armed with the insight they gained from seeing the Japanese portray “the floating world” they went on to break free from realism and create masterpieces like The Water Lillies, or The Starry Night. The Impressionists were trashed by the critics and many died poor but the wheels they had set in motion were powerful and prolific.

Vincent van Gogh, Portrait of Père Tanguy, 1887

This was the first in a concussive series of movements based around hedonic art that would ultimately birth Psychedelia. Ukiyo-e and the idea of “the floating world” released the impressionists from the ties to reality that had been dominant in European art.

For the first time on a large scale we begin to see art that is intentionally strange. This would only get stranger with Post Impressionism.

The Great Wave

By the time Ukiyo-e made its way to Europe it had faded from popularity almost completely in Japan. After trade with the U.S. began, public interest quickly shifted toward western art forms and culture. Because of this, wood block printers began using their skills to print newspapers instead of art prints.

But the most iconic image in the Ukiyo-e style was created just before Ukiyo-e fizzled out. The Great Wave off Kanagawa by Hokusai. The Great Wave depicts 3 boats of fishermen being threatened by a gigantic rogue wave. The sacred volcano Mt Fuji is dwarfed in the background.

This piece is a statement on the industrial age coming to the shores of feudal Japan. Inevitably breaking into the hermit kingdom and swallowing Japan whole. Even dwarfing the majesty of its most iconic mountain. Unstoppable. Cold. Relentless. A poignant statement on the inevitability of change and the passing of time from one age to the next. Its an incredible work to stand in front of. I’m very lucky to have seen an original print of it in Boston years ago.

In the next post in this series we will explore the pathway art took from the work of the Post Impressionists to the spooky and beautiful world of victorian Art Nouveau. Arguably the biggest visual influence on psychedelia and one of my favorite genres of art. Stay tuned!

0 0 Votes
Post Rating
Notify of

Most Voted
Newest Oldest
Inline Feedbacks
View All Comments

[…] up and coming artists are actively creating surrealist pieces. So while all the movements we have discussed previously have faded out of popularity, Surrealism continues on in the imaginations of artists […]


[…] this series. The final part! We find ourselves now at the place we have been plodding towards for 400 years. A blast of hedonic culture erupting in the mid to late 1960s on the west coast of the American […]

Nighthouse Website Design