An art form that grew with the 'floating' and unbound (from the traditional Japanese class structure) merchant class between the 17th and 20th century came to be known as Ukiyo-e literally translating as pictures from the floating world. These being wood block prints could be mass produced and were affordable. The subjects for the images range from Japanese urban life, landscapes, everyday activities, public spectacles like sumo matches etc. As this art form also started with the intention of being illustrations to books, stories, theatre scripts that were being churned out by the merchant class, the paintings are easy to comprehend, simple but powerful in their compositions and carry some amount of text explaining the plot of the image. Around the mid 18th century certain technological advancements allowed production of full colour prints that came to be known as nishiki-e which are my personal favourites especially the ones of Hiroshige and Hokusai.
One of my Japanese friends Hiroshi also informed me that these prints were also used as covers of wrapping papers to protect the official document, making the protective cover as important as the document. Maybe it is exactly this combination of mass production, beauty and easy comprehension that must have made this art form most threatening to the state and higher classes that asserted strict rules against use of political subjects, individuals above the lowest strata of society (courtesans, wrestlers and actors) and sex as subjects for the prints. Going by present times and an urgent need for Agitprop this may be a very important tool for designers to contribute through.
Below are some of my favourite Ukiyo-e prints.
Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1797-1861)
Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849)
Ando Hiroshige (1797-1858)