Woodcut printmaking has a rich history in Japan, being traced back as early as the eighth century as a convenient way to reproduce written text. In the mid-1700’s, prints became multi-color illustrations on single sheets of paper. Before then, artists had to hand paint each individual print (Metropolitan Museum of Art). Multi-color or polychrome prints (nishiki-e) were stunning to view back then, and began first as calendars exchanged by wealthy patrons in Edo.
Polychrome prints, while credited to a single artist, actually required a team of skilled artisans and crafters to produce: the designer, the engraver, the printer and the publisher. Each person had their own job from designing the different woodblocks to make up the single polychrome print, actually carving the wood, actually printing the carved design onto paper and selling the printed work. This production model is seen in European woodcut or lithography studios, and even in screen printing shops today.
Some of the most famous Japanese prints are called ukikyo-e, or “images of the floating world.” These are prints of seductive courtesans (often in erotic situations), famous kabuki actors or romantic vistas. Since prints are original pieces of artwork created in editions, the cost of the artwork was relatively low, so ukiyo-e prints enjoyed a wide audience.
Japanese woodcut prints eventually circulated out of Japan and into Europe, which had a profound influence on artists of the Post-Impressionist and Romantic movements. The French even coined a word, Japonisme, for the interest and study of Japanese artwork and culture. Vincent Van Gogh wrote to his brother Theo in 1888, “All of my work is based to some extent on Japanese art…” (Van Gogh Museum)
Printmaking now is an extremely varied art form, ranging from woodblocks and wood engravings, lithography, silkscreen, aquatint and mezzotint, collagraph, chine colle, hand-coloring and anything and everything in between. There are still print shops today that employ the designer, engraver, engineer and publisher, but it is also very common to see the artist fulfilling all of those roles themselves.
We’re going to take a look at two well-known Japanese ukiyo-e masters, one mid-modern printmaker and a post-modern printmaker.
Hokusai’s Great Wave is one of the most instantly recognizable Japanese prints made, and I would venture to say it is among some of the most recognizable prints in the world. It has also been a long-time favorite artwork of mine, and has even remained on my desktop background for a few years now. I just don’t get tired of looking at it from an aesthetic or technical standpoint.
Aesthetically, I enjoy the fact that the foaming crests of the waves have been illustrated and shaded ever-so-subtly with the lighter blue. It’s not often that I see waves illustrated with defined lines and a limited color palette, rather than layers and layers of blended paint. There’s even dots of white on the canvas for the spray of the waves!
Technically, this print’s registration and color palette are spot-on. Something interesting about Hokusai’s prints is that one of his claims to fame was prints using indigo and the imported pigment Prussian blue (Metropolitan Museum of Art).
Hiroshige is a contemporary of Hokusai, and considered a master of the color woodblock print. His catalog of works number in the thousands and include a series called One Hundred Famous Views of Edo, which I have selected a work from. Suido Bridge and the Surugadai Quarter depicts a koi kite, which are hung on the fifth day of the fifth month in honor of the boy’s festival.
I am immediately drawn to this image for personal reasons, as my married family includes some Japanese customs, such as koi kites! My in-laws hang a giant koi kite from the top of their barn when their grandson comes to visit them.
The formal elements of this print are also quite wonderful as well! I enjoy that the kite takes up a great portion of the foreground with its solid, yet curving form which contrasts the straight, light pole from which it hangs. Hiroshige is able to achieve perspective and a depth of field in this image by how he has layered the elements of his composition: note how the kite hangs in front of the city scene and the little tip of the tail is in front of the kite’s pole.
The usage of colors in this print are nothing short of dreamy for me, which is pretty consistent with the intent of ukiyo-e style. The warm gradation in the sky and the dark gradation of colors in the river create interesting points of light and dark in the composition without being too overwhelming or detracting from the linework.
Shiko Munakata is sometimes considered a “Japanese Picasso,” due to how large and expressive his woodcut prints are. He started out as a self-taught painter, but quickly changed course to printmaking after seeing a print by Sumio Kawakumi (Ronin Gallery). Munakata is well-known for his expressive depictions of Buddhist images on a large scale. Traditionally, Japanese artwork had to be small to accomodate the small dwellings and limited wall space of buyers. Munakata’s printmaking has definite Western influences to it (in both pre and post-WWII eras), and remind me a little bit of Chagall, Picasso and other European Expressionists and Cubists.
This image illustrates just how enormous some of his prints are!
This print stands out to me as a great fusion of a more classic ukiyo-e aesthetic, but with a modern take on printmaking technique and color palette. This image is dreamy but also much darker, with heavier lines on the bridge and a heavier application of color. It looks to me like the grasses in the foreground weren printed directly on top of the colors below, helping achieve a depth of field without lineart.