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After the Floating World

Yoshida print

Dating as early as the eighth century, woodblock prints were initially used in Japan to reproduce and disseminate written texts, particularly Buddhist scriptures [Life of the Buddha] .  It would not be until the eighteenth century, however, that the technique would come to be applied more as a creative medium.  In 1765, the advent of new technology enabled the production of single-sheet prints in a broad range of colors.  Printmakers who had previously worked in monochrome and painted color by hand gradually came to use full polychrome painting with often breathtaking results.  The first prints to apply this style, known as nishiki-e, were calendars commissioned for wealthy patrons residing in Edo (modern-day Tokyo), where it was the custom to exchange beautifully designed calendars at the beginning of each year.  From then onward, woodblock printing would find increasing popularity as a Japanese painting style.

Life of the Buddha

Beginning in the late 17th century and lasting through the 19th, during the Edo and Meiji periods, woodblock printing would rise to prominence, specifically the ukiyo-e style.  As Japonism became a major trend in the Western world, works such as the landscapes of Katsushika Hokusai and Utagawa Hiroshige exerted a strong influence on early Impressionists such as Degas, Manet, and Monet as well as Post-Impressionists such as van Gogh and Art Nouveau artists like Toulouse-Lautrec.  The style achieved such renown that it eventually became central in shaping the West's perception of Japanese art in the late 19th century.  Although masters like Hokusai and Hiroshige would come to realize far-reaching popularity for some of the most recognized works from this period, each print actually required the contributions of four experts: the designer, the engraver, the printer and the publisher.  A print was usually conceived and issued as a commercial venture by the publisher, who was often also a bookseller.  And, designers were dependent on the skill and cooperation of their engravers as well as the printers charged with executing their ideas in finished form.  Truly, these works are an example of collaborative artistry.

Following the deaths of Hokusai (1849) and Hiroshige (1858) and after the Meiji Restoration of 1868, ukiyo-e suffered a sharp decline in both quantity and quality.  The rapid Westernization of the Meiji period that followed saw woodblock printing turn its services to journalism and soon face competition from more contemporary mediums such as photography.  Practitioners of pure ukiyo-e became more uncommon as tastes turned away from a genre seen by many as a remnant of an obsolescent era.  But, in the early 20th century during the Taishō and Shōwa periods, the technique would see a revival in the form of shin hanga.  This style maintained the time-honored ukiyo-e collaborative system and focused on customary themes such as landscapes, famous places, beautiful women, kabuki actors, birds and flowers.  However, inspired by European Impressionism, shin hanga artists broke with the ukiyo-e tradition and began to also incorporate Western elements such as the use of natural light, colored lines, muted colors and 3-dimensionality.  While these works do retain much of the original ukiyo-e characteristics in terms of subject matter, they reveal somewhat different techniques and sensibilities, producing hybrids of both modern design and traditional themes.   

From February 18 to May 14, the Oklahoma City Museum of Art presents After the Floating World, an exhibit dedicated to the age-old art form of Japanese Woodblock printing.  Organized from the collections of the OKCMOA, this exhibition focuses on two printmakers at the forefront of the early 20th century shin hanga movement, artists Torii Kiyotada VII (1875-1941) and Hiroshi Yoshida (1876-1950).  Kiyotada VII was born into a family with a long tradition of producing theatrical images and his prints of Kabuki actors illustrate the rich tradition of Japanese theater.  Yoshida was a popular artist both in Japan and in the United States whose extensive world travels resulted in evocative prints of familiar landmarks such as Mt. Fuji, the Taj Mahal, the Acropolis and Niagara Falls.  So, be sure to stop by the museum soon to view these beautiful works.  To supplement your visit, check out some of the following materials on Japanese Woodblock printing available at the Metropolitan Library System today.

Japanese Woodblock Prints: Artists, Publishers, and Masterworks, 1680-1900 Andreas Marks

In the early 17th century, Edo became the seat of government for the military dictatorship. During this period, the city grew to become one of the largest in the world. With rapid economic development spreading throughout the capitol, urban culture began to thrive. As a result, merchants and artisans at the lower end of the social order could now afford indulgences such as the entertainments of kabuki theatre or the delights offered by the courtesans and geisha of the pleasure districts. The term ukiyo, translated in English as "the floating world", came to describe this burgeoning extravagant lifestyle. Emerging in the late 17th century, printed or painted images depicting this environment soon became popular with the merchant classes, now wealthy enough to adorn their homes with such luxuries. Today, these woodblock prints, otherwise known as known as ukiyo-e, are perhaps some of the most recognizable forms of Japanese art. Their massive popularity has spread from Japan only to be embraced by a worldwide audience. Covering the period from the beginning of the Japanese woodblock print in the 1680s until the year 1900, Japanese Woodblock Prints provides a detailed survey of the masterworks of the ukiyo-e style, offering insight into the histories and contexts of the prints as well as a study of the artists and the publishers, who were often the driving force determining which prints and therefore which artists would make it into mass circulation. Whether for the enthusiast seeking detailed information on favorite Japanese artists and prints or for the newcomer looking for an introduction to the world of woodblock printing, Andres Marks’ lavishly illustrated volume is an invaluable guide to this beautiful art form.

Hiroshige / Eisen: The Sixty-nine Stations of the Kisokaido Sebastian Izzard

In the early years of the Edo period, many political, legal, cultural and intellectual changes took place. Among them was the rejuvenation of Japan's thousand-year-old highway system. Five roads were formally nominated as official routes for the use of the Tokugawa shogun and other vassals. These routes also provided the shogunate with the communications network it needed to stabilize and rule the country. Constructed under Tokugawa Ieyasu, the Kiso Kaidō, otherwise known as the Nakasendō, was one of these five roads, stretching from Edo, where the shogun wielded true power, through the central mountain ranges of Honshu and on to Kyoto. Unlike the coastal Tōkaidō road, the Nakasendō traveled inland, hence its name, which can be translated as “Central Mountain Route”. Along this road, there were sixty-nine different post stations providing stables, food and lodging for travelers. Many travelers preferred the Nakasendō as the route did not require the fording of rivers. Reproduced from the finest surviving edition of the original manuscript, the The Sixty-nine Stations of the Kisokaido offers an unforgettable portrait of daily life in 19th century Japan. From beggars and brawling men to boaters and finely clothed women, each plate teems with unique characters representing the diverse traffic that traversed the route, offering new insights into the artists' processes. With gentle humor, these selected works remarkably juxtapose human vitality with imagery familiar to lovers of Japanese history. Readers will travel from station to station through changing seasons, rural roads and city streets on a journey that explores every stratum of a diverse society.

Japan Journeys: Famous Woodblock Prints of Cultural Sights in Japan Andreas Marks

As Japan began to modernize after the Meiji Restoration and the nation endeavored to catch up with a world that had since surpassed it, a flood of contemporary technology entered the country. This affected all aspects of life, and woodblock printing was no exception. Previously the labor intensive woodblock process had been the primary source of printed images. Now, it was being replaced by a number of new techniques and methods, such as lithographs and photography. In addition, woodblock prints suffered the stigma of being considered part of the past, something the Japanese were now desperate from which to move on. However, the early 20th century ushered in the arrival of shin-hanga, a form that revitalized traditional ukiyo-e principles. Translated as “new print”, shin-hanga consisted of works featuring highly romanticized qualities, suggesting a deep yearning for a return to rural roots and the warm wooden architecture that was disappearing in urban Tokyo. In addition to showcasing the nation's natural beauty and offering glimpses into the daily lives of its citizens, the nostalgic, idealized views of Japan represented in shin-hanga subtly reveal the growing pangs of a country in the midst of ongoing transformation. Often, these prints foreshadow the rapid and often uneven transition Japan experienced during the Meiji Era. In Japan Journeys, art historian Andreas Marks has carefully curated a selection of prominent works from 19th and 20th century masters such as Utagawa Hiroshige, Kitagawa Utamaro and Utagawa Kunisada. Whisking the reader off to Kyoto and other sights of Japan, this book is a valuable resource for art historians, scholars, and anyone interested in Japanese art, history and traditional culture.

The Art of Japanese Prints Nigel Cawthorne

The subjects in ukiyo-e attempt to divorce the viewer from the tedious and mundane aspects of everyday life. This art form encourages people to live in the moment and to turn their focus to the simple pleasures found in such things as the moon, cherry blossoms, snow, maple leaves, wine and song. According to the artists of this movement, refusal to be disheartened by the burdens of everyday life is a necessity. It was perhaps this approach that sustained the form’s dominance in Japan throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. Today, it remains a major influence on the visual arts. The shin-hanga movement sought to integrate Western elements into the practice without sacrificing the traditional values of woodblock printing. Instead of blindly imitating Western art styles, the new movement continued to concentrate primarily on traditional subjects such as landscapes, elegant female characters and Kabuki performers, presenting nostalgic and romanticized views of Japan in the tradition of the old ways. Shin hanga artists continued to collaborate with carvers, printers and publishers in print production. However, inspired by European Impressionism, practitioners of this new revival also introduced new characteristics to the form such as the effects of lighting and the expression of individual moods. The result was a technically superb and compelling new style of Japanese prints. Nigel Cawthorne’s The Art of Japanese Print is a lavishly detailed celebration of the classic Japanese technique, featuring a stunning collection of beautifully reproduced examples of masterpieces from the genre accompanied by short biographies of the artists, many of which are already familiar images the world over.

Japanese Woodblock Print Workshop: A Modern Guide to the Ancient Art of Mokuhanga April Vollmer

Japanese woodblock printing has been embraced for its non-toxic character, its use of handmade materials and its easy integration with other printmaking techniques. In the traditional practice, an image is first designed by the artist on paper then transferred to a thin, partly transparent sheet. The print is then pasted to a wooden block after which the carver traces the lines of the image with a chisel, carving and cutting to transfer the original in negative with the lines and areas to be colored raised in relief. Ink is then applied to the surface of the woodblock. Paper is laid over the top of the inked board and then rubbed with a round pad, thus making the print. Polychrome prints were made using a separate carved block for each color, which could number up to twenty. To print with precision using numerous blocks on a single paper sheet, a system of placing two cuts on the edge of each block to serve as alignment guides was employed. Paper made from the inner bark of mulberry trees was favored, as it was sufficiently absorbent to take up the ink and pigments and strong enough to withstand numerous rubbings on the various woodblocks. In Japanese Woodblock Print Workshop, artist and printmaker April Vollmer, one of the best known mokuhanga practitioners and instructors in the West, utilizes her deep knowledge of this historic printmaking practice to offer readers a comprehensive guide to Japanese woodblock printing's history and techniques, with step-by-step guidance on materials and studio practices as well as demonstrations and examples of finished works by both modern and traditional masters of the medium.

Additional Readings

Ukiyo-E by Dora Amsden,

Hokusai: Prints and Drawings by Matthi Forrer

Hokusai by Edmond de Goncourt

Japanese Art by Joan Stanley-Baker 

Japanese Art and Design by Joe Earle 

Kazari: Decoration and Display in Japan, 15th-19th Centuries by Nicole Coolidge Rousmaniere 

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