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Japanese Ukiyo-e prints

Updated: Jan 27

One summer day, a Denver antique dealer called to say they had some prints I might like.

The last thing I needed was more prints, but I decided it couldn’t hurt to look. The dealer's collection consisted of Japanese furniture, ceramics, carvings, fabrics and, in the corner, a pile of woodblocks in the ugliest mats imaginable. A bit reluctantly, I paid for a few woodblocks and left. But that night, the woodblocks were floating through my dreams, so I marched in the next morning with a check for "all the paper" in the collection. The stacks of prints literally filled a table in my studio two feet high and became a siren song, pulling me away from deadlines and paying tasks. For months, I eagerly anticipated the end of each day, when I let myself pour over these luminous woodblocks, deciphering and learning what all the seals meant and how the woodblocks were printed. Thank goodness for the Internet and the wealth of knowledge available at a few clicks.



Somebody once introduced me as an expert on Japanese prints, at which I had to laugh. Being thrown into a pit of snakes gives one an appreciation of snakes, but that doesn't make one an expert. Since then, I have slowly added to my knowledge of the process and the history behind Japanese woodblocks. They stand apart from any other woodblocks one sees in museums and, it seemed to me, at the time, as though Japan were isolated from the world where woodblock artists developed their unique style. As I delved into the history of Japan, I learned that is exactly what happened. Japan was a closed country from the 17th through mid-19th centuries. The result of that isolation is the iconic woodblocks we see today of the kabuki plays by Toyokuni Kunisada, the warrior scenes of Kuniyoshi, and the stylized landscapes of Ando Hiroshige.



A brief history of Japanese prints starts in 1600 with Japan's reaction to the unrestricted Western trade and Christian Missionaries. In 1603, Japan enacted the Policy of Sakoku (locked country) with all commerce and foreign relations strictly controlled and directed through gateway ports in Southern Japan. Sakoku isolated Japanese craftsmen from outside influences and innovations, with Japanese printmaking developing a style reflective of their society. It also meant that citizens were not allowed to leave the country, engage with foreigners, and were subjected to severe penalties if caught deviating from government guidelines.


Because of the Sakoku Policy, a strong middle class, chonin, of merchants and craftsmen developed to meet the needs of the government and elite classes. The economy that developed around that middle class produced the highly skilled craftsmen that has become part of Japan’s identity.



The Dutch developed a vibrant trade presence with Japan mainly because they mostly observed the guidelines of controlled trade and no missionaries. Spain and Portugal were restricted to trading from Macao and through gateway ports as they continued to introduce missionaries into Japanese society. Trade goods and manufacturing innovations coming into and leaving Japan were strictly monitored or restricted.


The Edo Period (1720-1868) saw printmaking evolve from Buddhist single-color manuscripts to the highly intricate multi-block prints of the Ukiyo-e period. Regional styles developed. Edo (Tokyo) depicted kabuki play scenes of heroism, while Osaka depicted more subliminal scenes of the Wagoto acting style.



Within the Edo Period, there are three main periods in the evolution of Japanese printmaking. Benizuri-e (1720-1750) saw the first illustrative prints which were two or three colors with simple designs. The first trade prints were calendars given as gifts which were more affordable and plentiful than hand-painted calendars. Nishiki-e (1760-1790) is when color registration was refined allowing prints to have a wider range of colors. Suzuki Harunobu (1725 - 1770) was instrumental in refining color registration with his innovative prints. Ukiyo-e (1790-1876) period saw printmaking evolve into the intricate woodblocks that is most identified with Japanese printmaking to date.



There was a division of labor involved in the creation of the elaborate woodblock prints; the publisher, the artist, the engraver and the printer, each contributing their refined skill to the project. Starting in 1790, the government required the prints to display a censor seal applied by one of the trade guilds. This was changed in 1841 by the Tenpo Reform that government officials granted the censor seals. Starting in 1854, military pressure was applied to Japan to open trading ports to American traders. And in 1867, the Shogunate was forced to yield government control to Imperial rule and in 1868, the Meiji Restoration, transferred rule to the Imperial government.



The Meiji Period (1868-1912) saw the elimination of censor seals on woodblock prints, the introduction of new dyes and pigments and incorporation of Western design and style into Japanese art. As government regulation loosened, so did styles and print techniques and new art movements appeared, following much the same track as the European Art Movements.

There is so much to explore in the development and history of Japanese printmaking and this brief history barely touches the surface. Watch for more posts about Japanese printmaking.


A fun and short read is Old Man Mad about Drawing : a Tale of Hokusai” by Francois Place.  And the book “The Printmakers Daughter” by Katherine Govier is a wonderful glimpse into the world of Japanese printmaking.


View some of the Japanese woodblocks in our collection at https://www.dcartpress.com/collections

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