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Woodblock prints – Ukiyo-e

When thinking about Japanese art in the West the laymen interested in art will immediately picture in his head coloured woodblock prints, such as the Wave by Hokusai, the blooming plum tree by Hiroshige (integrated by van Gogh into his famous painting) or those large contorted heads of actors by Sharaku, scenes with geishas or actors in specific scenes from the theatre or the surprisingly detailed pictures of lovers.

However, the sacral wood-sculptures carved for Buddhist temples since the Nara-period (710 – 794), the foldable screens, decorated with strong colours, gold and ink, storage jars, vases and bowls made of stoneware or porcelain or the armours and swords of the samurais, lacquer boxes and containers such as Inro as well as Netsuke, are known only to a comparatively small circle of experts. Not many people have heard even of the highly developed ink paintings of the Heian-period (794-1185).

It was the woodblock prints in particular that fascinated initially the European painters from the middle of the 19th century onwards and animated them to deal with the completely different Japanese formal principles. The seascapes by Camille Corot, based upon the composition of Hokusai’s Wave, the famous haystack-painting by Claude Monet, influenced clearly by Hokusai’s red Fuji, forebode the intense effect that the artworks shown in the Japanese pavilions at the world exhibitions in Vienna (1873) and Paris (1867 and 1889) had on artists and later also on collectors of the time.

The first woodblock prints were created in the early 17th century as black and white illustrations for books (so-called Ehon). Their precursor were Chinese by pictures illustrated books as well as literature provided with illustrations. The first artist who developed woodblock prints as an art-form in itself, and also signed them with his name, was Hishikawa Moronobu (who died in 1694) whose oeuvre comprises approximately 150 titles of illustrated books. After studying various schools of painting like Kano and Tosa he similarly started to design powerfully drawn human figures. He was able to skillfully stylize single figures or groups depicted predominantly in rooms, often in amorous play, but also plants and strong boulders. His successor Kiyonobu (1664-1729), who was actually a Kabuki actor, is regarded as founder of the Torii school of artists. After moving from Osaka to Edo he composed powerful theatre scenes. To this school of artists, which Kurth called the “Primitives” of Japanese woodblock prints, belong his younger contemporaries Kiyomasu I, Kiyomine and Kiyomitsu to who we owe the dynamic and poster-like pictures of actors. Okumura Masanobu (1686-174) preferred clearly the depictions of life in the Yoshiwara pleasure-district.

„Suzuki Harunobu“ (1724-1770) is generally considered the inventor of the coloured woodblock print and became famous for his depictions of ladies in lovely landscapes with finely balanced colouring. The Japanese term “nishiki-e”, meaning brocade pictures, refers not only to the colourfulness of the works but also to the fine and detailed embellishment, as seen for example on the robes.

It followed the ingenious Utamaro (1750-1806): he skillfully depicted big, strong heads, interiors with many figures and enchanting ambience, but also undiluted nature, as shown by his famous album about insects. His comprehensive oeuvre shows him to have been a psychologically empathetic observer of the female mind but also an aficionado of erotic woodblock prints which in Japanese are subtly called “shunga-e” meaning spring pictures.

The two artists who so inspired the Europeans were Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849) and Utagawa Hiroshige I (1797-1858) who were both famous for their numerous series of landscapes and exteriors.

The 19th century gave us a multitude of artists who created mostly a kind of commercial art: Pictures of scenes from Kabuki theatre plays with the famous actor X, often published immediately after the world premiere and thus contributing to the success of that production or the fame of the performer. Similarly, images of the famous geisha from the Yoshiwara district were supposed to attract solvent clients and be of advantage to the ladies and the house, in which they lived and worked. The term used in Japan for these woodblock prints, “ukiyo-e”, (pictures (e) of a floating world (ukiyo)) paraphrases the subject of these woodblock prints and alludes simultaneously to the clientele.

As the descriptions in our catalogues and others are full of technical terms we have compiled a range of fundamental information, which should help the understanding of the texts. Japanese woodblock prints have standardized sizes depending on the woodblocks and for each size we specify the corresponding dimensions in centimetres.
-> Click here, to see a list of the standardized sizes

Additionally, the many techniques used for printing were given quite poetic names and we have annotated these with their equivalents in German and English. This list is far from complete and we welcome any comments and/or additions.
-> Click here, to see a list of the techniques

As the current state of preservation of a woodblock print is very important for its valuation we have many years ago created a list of encodings of conditions together with well-known experts and collectors like Jack Hillier, Roger Keyes, Heinz Kaempfer and others. We print these encodings at the end of each description. The significance of each code is displayed if you move your mouse-cursor over the respective shortcuts and stay there for a while. The declaration will be shown in a so called tool-tip.
-> Click here, to see a list of the encodings

last updated by mh! at 04.09.2007 10:52

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