Written by Tom | July 2nd 2020 | Updated May 2021
Japan has long reigned as a country of artistic refinement and arguably no medium conveys this better than its woodblock prints. These woodblocks often depict scenes of nature and pleasure, of kimono-clad individuals and samurai, masterfully crafted by artisan makers. To celebrate our weekly woodblock auctions, we asked Japanese art expert, Giovanni Bottero, to walk us through the history of this refined artform and why these prints work as exquisite wall art for any space.
Ukiyo-e—which translates literally as ‘pictures of the floating world’—is a genre of Japanese art that encompasses a wide range of techniques, media and subjects that revolve around idealised life in the theatre and pleasure districts of Edo-period (1600-1868). In the 17th century, the burgeoning middle class of large cities (such as Edo and Osaka) adopted the term ‘floating world’. This was originally a Buddhist expression meant as a warning against the fleeting transience of life but its meaning changed to a constant enjoyment of the pleasures of (city) life.
Ukiyo-e artists were skilful painters and book illustrators but it is thanks to woodblock printing, which reached a high level of technical sophistication, that they were able to create the most iconic ‘images of the floating world’. When we hold in our hands a nishiki-e (lit. 'brocade picture'), a polychrome woodblock print made after 1765, we can truly appreciate the 'finished product' of a concerted, team effort.
Zojoji Temple, Shiba, published by Watanabe - Kawase Hasui
The making of one involves; the mastery of the artist, who designs the print; the carver who chisels each line into a cherry woodblock; and the printer, who recreates the soft light of sunset by applying varying pressure to the paper (a shading technique known as bokashi). Last is the publisher, who embarks on the risky venture of financing the publication of a series of prints glorifying actors and courtesans, thus advertising the glamorous 'floating world'.
Japanese woodblock prints feature such a variety of themes and genres, designs and colours, inventions and wit, which is what collectors and enthusiasts love. Whether your interest lies in historical figures, action, adventure, sex (from subtle innuendos to rather graphic images), landscapes, actors, demons, heroes and villains, Japanese woodblock prints will always surprise and entice you.
Works by masters such as Kitagawa Utamaro, Katsushika Hokusai and Utagawa Hiroshige will always be sought after but 20th-century shin-hanga (new prints) are also very popular. In terms of genres, shunga (literally 'pictures of spring') or erotic images are perhaps among the most popular. The great majority of artists designed erotica but because of censorship, most of these works were unsigned and, therefore, less common or advertised. Its forbidden nature, I believe, adds a level of excitement (no pun intended...) to collecting shunga.
This type of print is a bijinga (picture of a beauty) by Yoshitoshi
Buyers loved that they could vicariously experience the beauty of Japan through the prints. They could also fantasise about the most renowned courtesans or popular kabuki actors. More importantly, they were accessible across budgets: most prints were mass-produced and sold in bookshops right on the street for the price of a meal.
This idealised world of pleasures that was being sold to the emerging Edo middle class preoccupied the shogunate (military government). They repeatedly forbade publishing erotic prints, theatre prints that glorified extravagant actors and ones that ironically poked fun at the samurai class. Unfazed, many artists found creative ways to circumvent these prohibitions (very recognisable faces of actors were even pasted onto turtles in one print by Kuniyoshi).
Japanese woodblock prints had a great impact on European artists, especially during the height of Japonisme (the study and influence of Japanese art). Influential European artists were enamoured with ukiyo-e. Claude Monet, for example, is said to have gathered a collection of 231 prints and participated in the 'race' to be credited for 'discovering' Japanese prints.
This print is by Koson, titled 'Three Salmons'
Western artists influenced by ukiyo-e include many of the Impressionists, such as Edgar Degas, Vincent van Gogh and Camille Pissarro. Examples include paintings such as Monet's 'La Japonaise' and James Whistler's 'The Princess From the Land of Porcelain' which illustrated the West's fascination for the East.
Ukiyo-e was mass-produced until the introduction of photography, which was the quickest way to reproduce reality. Ukiyo-e artists of the late Meiji period (1868-1912) often designed prints for newspapers that illustrated events of the day (often murders). Once photography took hold, ukiyo-e lost much of its appeal.
'Zentsû Temple in Sanuki Province' by Watanabe
However, woodblock printing and its techniques was revived by the shin-hanga movement which started around 1915, thanks to publisher Watanabe Shozaburo. Around the same time, another movement called sosaku hanga (literally 'creative prints') helped increase the popularity of woodblock printing. This movement, however, was inspired by Western traditions and emphasised individual creativity: prints should be 'self-designed, self-carved, self-printed', thus disavowing the traditional division of labour among the artist, carver, and printer.
Considering that the history of collecting Japanese woodblock prints in the West began in the second half of the 19th century, it’s remarkable that the popularity of the art has not waned in over 140 years, either in the West or the East. Over the years, the popularity of shin hanga and sosaku hanga has increased greatly, almost equalling that of the older masterpieces.
'A Group of Herons in Snow' by Ohara Koson
While most of the iconic designs, such as Hokusai's 'Great Wave', are widely known in the collecting world, it’s hard to tell how many impressions have been made of other, lesser-known designs. This means that collectors always harbour the hope of discovering a new print which is one way of keeping the passion alive.
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