Japanese Woodblock Prints
Japanese Woodblock Prints
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Copyright 1959, sixth edition
Total 309 pages

When most people think of Japanese wood-block prints, they think of Hokusai's prints of Mt. Fuji and other landscape scenes created in the late Edo period. In fact, the earliest Japanese wood-block prints date to the 11th century. While the early prints in black and white were mostly for the purpose of reproducing religious texts, the genre of “ukio-e” developed from a style of painting in the Edo period that focused on the events of daily life. Gradually, the style progressed from prints using red, yellow, and green, to realistic, intricate multicolor prints.

Enjoy these excerpts from “Japanese Wood-Block Prints”

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The origin of “ukio-e”

Two women

Two women, a hand-colored print by Shigenaga Nishimura

Ukiyoe is not a very old word. It occurs first in a book entitled Koshoku Ichidai Otoko by the celebrated author Saikaku Ihara (1642-1693), published in 1682. Genre pictures that by their nature might well have been called ukiyoe, had been in circulation before that date, and indeed such pictures may have been actually so called by the people, with the result that Saikaku employed the term in his novel as a current neoterism. And as such genre pictures became more and more popular, the term ukiyoe came more and more into general use.
In those days the expression was applied to pictures depicting the ephemeral worldly pleasures of gay life, so that their themes were taken from the gay quarters, the theaters, and their neighborhood, which were the most popular places of public resort. All through the Edo period the themes were taken from these same sources. The ukiyoe painters thus chiefly portrayed gay girls and actors, but they also painted waitresses in the so-called “tea-houses” attached to theaters, and geisha girls. Those who ventured to represent the domestic life of daimyo (local lords), liatamoto (immediate feudatories of the shogun), and other members of the military class, did so at the risk of incurring the ire of the Shogun- ate and thus being thrown into prison. For this reason the warrior class afforded the painters but few themes for their pictures. Even the domestic life of the more sober tradespeople was not much represented in ukiyoe. So the ukiyoe painters at first contented themselves with objective representations of scenes in the gay quarters and in theater streets; they then depicted their indoor life ; and finally went on to the portrayal of gay women and actors with all their individual characteristics and peculiarities. In this respect, i. e., in the choice of subjects, both hand-painted genre pictures and wood-cuts went through a very similar series of changes.
From the foregoing it will be obvious that one would fall into a serious error if one were to form an idea of the general manners and customs of the Edo period solely from the genre pictures of the ukiyoe type, particularly from those which are known as nishikie. The reader is, therefore, once more warned against the impression he might get from ukiyoe of a highly colorful metropolis full of lovely women strolling through its thoroughfares. He is asked to bear constantly in mind the extremely narrow sphere to which the manners and customs shown in such detail in ukiyoe were really confined.

A kitchen scene

A kitchen scene by Moronobu Hishikawa

Since the formal position of ukiyoe in the history of Japanese art depended on the straightforward representation of prosaic urban manners and customs, it was inevitable that they should have catered to the taste of the common citizen by depicting scenes in the gay quarters and theatrical circles. Indeed, the ukiyoe painters far surpassed all other schools of graphic art in the representation of life in such circles.
Extremely limited as was the social sphere from which the ukiyoe artists at first obtained the themes, the general conception of the term ukiyoe (a picture depicting the fleeting world or mundane life) was gradually extended to cover all phases of life, with the result that the spheres of life represented by ukiyoe became correspondingly enlarged. Ukiyoe paint­ers, moreover, sought to meet popular demands for other kinds of pictures, such as those of wrestlers, warriors, dolls, children, etc., and pictures to adorn battledores, picture-books, illustrations for novels, and so forth.

Landscape prints

But the most artistic developments occurred in prints of landscapes, flowers, birds, etc,. Such pictures, showing as they did the beauties of Nature, could hardly be called ukiyoe in the proper sense ; but in the sense that they were produced by ukiyoe artists, prints of birds and flowers constitute a legitimate subject of study by students of the ukiyoe proper. As for landscape prints, they may be regard­ed as backgrounds of portraits or genre pictures greatly enlarged and made into independent pictures. Most of them, however, are not simple representa­tions of scenery, for they combined with them things Japanese, both inanimate and personal, as well as the Japanese taste and love of travel. It thus seems natural that landscape prints should have come to be treated as a kind of ukiyoe. When the principles of linear perspective, familiar to Western artists, were made known to Japanese painters, the ukiyoe men, untrammelled by old-established rules of painting, eagerly learned the new technique and applied it to their own wood-cuts. The tendency began about the Kyoho era (1716-1735), and one of the pioneers in this movement was Masanobu Okumura. The introduction of the peep-show with suitable pictures, and of the art of copperplate engraving, gave fresh impetus to the technical development of landscape painting. Toyoharu Utagawa and Kokan Shiba attracted general attention as masters in this new field. But it was Hokusai Katsushika, Kuniyoshi Utagawa, and Hiroshige Utagawa who, by the skilful application of the newly-introduced principles of linear perspective, and the technical excellence of copper engraving, brought landscape printing to a culmination.

Sudden Shower at Shono

Sudden Shower at Shono (from the “53 Stage-towns of the Tokaido”) by Hiroshige Ando

The impasse to which the art of xylography had come, near the end of the Edo period, owing to the impossibility of further progress in the portrayal of lovely women and actors, was forced open, as it were, by the triumph of these artists in landscape wood-block printing. Landscape prints, moreover, appealed strongly to the popular taste because just about that time, the inhabitants of the larger towns had become much interested in travel, and travel literature was in great vogue. And of the three artists above-mentioned, Hiroshige was perhaps the most Japanese in his attitude, for he not only did justice to the various local features of rural Japan, but gave objective pictures of its climate and weather in all their varied aspects. There are traceable in Hokusai's landscapes a good many elements of Chinese taste, and he is more subjective than objective. Kuniyoshi's pictures are mainly Occidental in expression, and strike me as too realistic. Each of the three masters perfected an artistic style of his own, and thev have thus won the admiration of European and American connois­seurs, with the result that they have exerted an important influence on the Western art of painting.

Mt. Fuji as seen from Tamagawa

Mt. Fuji as seen from Tamagawa (from the “36 views of Mt. Fuji”) by Hokusai Katsushika

The rise of the wood-block print

Down to the middle of the 17th century the fine arts had been the province of only the warriors, the nobility, and the priests. From about that time the common people grew steadily in importance, and they created and developed a culture of their own. Ukiyoe, painted by hand, were admired and treasured at first only by wealthy tradesmen in the towns, but the further development of plebeian culture taught people of the middle and lower classes to demand and appreciate works of art. It was thus with the idea of enabling such people to enjoy inexpensive works of art that the popular art of picture-printing was brought into being. It was, therefore, necessary that such prints should be of a sufficiently high quality to be appreciated as excellent art products rivaling the entirely hand-made ukiyoe. Their very size or shape was such as to render them suitable for appreciation. Some were large enough to be made into kakemono or hanging scrolls, or into gaku-men or framed pictures; some could be collected into pictorial albums ; while others were of a size adapted for pasting promiscuously on walls, fusuma (paper sliding-doors or screens), and byobu (paper folding-screens). In most cases each picture was com­plete in itself, but sometimes several wood-cuts formed one set or series. Of those prints which formed albums, usually a dozen constituted a series. All these facts go to prove what has already been said, viz., that these prints were meant to be democratic substitutes for the hand-painted pictures treasured in aristocratic circles.


Kasamori-Osen (a popular daughter of a tea-house) By Harunobu Suzuki

Simultaneously with the development of these artistic prints, there also developed the art of book-illustration and the publication of what were known as picture-books (of which the pictures rather than the reading matter formed the principal contents). Over a dozen pictures made up a picture-book, almost every picture having a few words of expla­nation written on it. Representing as they generally did contemporary manners and customs, they greatly excited the curiosity of would-be purchasers, and were thus the most popular works of art of the day.

It will amply repay our efforts to investigate the causes that led to the birth of this consummate type of colored broadside known as nishikie, which indeed marked a distinct epoch in the history of our art of engraving.
It should be remarked in the first place that the nishikie was not the result of the combined efforts of painters, engravers, and printers, but that there was a group of men who acted as their guiding spirits and made suggestions and plans for those artists, thus rendering it possible for them to produce such superb works of art. This group was composed of writers of comic and satirical verse, known as kyoka (literally “ mad songs ”). Some poets of this ty pe in those days took a deep esthetic interest in prints used as frontispieces of books, and they devised new and artistic color prints for this purpose. Among those comic poets were many young men who were sons of wealthy tradesmen in Edo, and being free from the cares and worries of earning a livelihood for themselves, they could afford to devise or design artistic color prints of purely esthetic merit. It was thus, chiefly by these rich versifiers that benizurie (crimson prints) were raised to the level of nishikie or brocade prints.
In the earlier specimens of nishikie one sees such signatures as the following:
Hakusei, Ko
Harunobu Suzuki, Painter
Goryoku Endo, Engraver
Koshi Yumoto, Printer

Before the Mirror

Before the Mirror by Ito Shinsui

This means that the piece was painted by Haru- nobu Suzuki, engraved by Goryoku Endo, and printed by Koshi Yumoto. The expression “ Hakusei Ko ” means a new type of print invented by the comic poet Hakusei. It signifies, in other words, that the nishikie was produced by a literary man with a keen appreciation for color prints, acting as a sort of con­ductor to a trio composed of a painter, an engraver, and a printer, all four working in perfect harmony. It is no wonder that something entirely new and highly artistic should have been created. Many new technical devices went to the making of the nishikie, the most notable of all being those which facilitated the artistic coloring of the pictures. Not only was the work of engraving the coloring blocks executed with great skill, but the colors were increased in number. The paper used for printing iiishikie was called liosho, which was of a higher quality than the paper used for benizurie, so that it brought out the different colors and tints.
It was fortunate for the art of chromoxylography that it thus enlisted into its service literary men of high esthetic sensibility, as well as skilful painters and equally dexterous engravers and printers, who united their minds and efforts to lift it to a higher plane of excellence than it had ever attained before.