Japanese Woodblock Prints, a Brief Introduction

Part of what drew me to Japan (apart from the girls, the food, and the exotic foreign-ness of the place) was a distinctly Japanese art form known as the woodblock print. As the name suggests, woodblock prints are made by carving a design into a block of wood, then printing it onto paper. This would seem to be a fairly straightforward process, at least until you introduce color into the equation, at which point numerous blocks must be utilized, one for each color, each perfectly aligned with the previous and succeeding block (as you can imagine, this makes the undertaking exponentially more difficult). Sometimes dozens of blocks are used, and the results can vary from photorealism to Picasso-esque abstraction. Although color woodblock prints have been around for hundreds of years in Japan, they didn’t come to the attention of Westerners until the late 1800’s, at which time individual woodblock prints were used as wrapping paper (!) for packages sent to Europe and the Americas. The prints caught the eye of painters such as Van Gogh, Mucha, Whistler, Toulouse-Lautrec and many others, and elements of Japanese woodblock images would figure prominently in their paintings from then on (Van Gogh blatantly lifted a couple of designs from Ando Hiroshige’s 100 Views of Edo, essentially rendering in oil what Hiroshige had done with wooden blocks and colored ink).

The prints that tend to catch the eye of this Westerner are largely from the 20th century. They fall into two sometimes overlapping categories: shin hanga, in which the artist creates a design, usually in watercolor, which is then made into a print by a team of professional carvers and printers, thus a collaborative effort; and sosaku hanga, in which the artist creates his own design, does his own carving and printing, and thus is responsible for the whole process from conception to finished result. The shin hanga prints tend to be more accessible to new aficionados, as they are often images of beautiful scenery or attractive kimono-clad women, while the sosaku hanga prints tend to be avant-garde, and thus rather more of an acquired taste. Also, shin hanga prints are often (but by no means always) more carefully carved and printed, as those artisans are schooled in their respective crafts, and do not have to be responsible for other elements of the process. Here is a representative selection of some shin hanga and sosaku hanga prints, dating from the early part of the 20th century up to about the early 1970s. Enjoy!

A shin hanga print by Uehara Konen, pre WWII

A shin hanga print by Hiroshi Yoshida, also pre-WWII

A shin hanga print by Kaburagi Kiyokata, early 20th C.

Japan becomes more westernized; a modern girl by Ito Shinsui

Ito Shinsui again, altogether more traditional

A shin hanga print by a Westerner in Japan, Elizabeth Keith

Some sosaku hanga, by way of contrast; Kihei Sasajima

A sosaku hanga abstract by Reika Iwami

A sosaku hanga street scene by Junichiro Sekino 

A sosaku hanga harbor scene by Fumio Kitaoka

Mt. Fuji, by Hideo Hagiwara

A fanciful cat by Tomoo Inagaki

Stay tuned for my next woodblock print post, where we’ll have a look at contemporary printmakers, both Japanese and Westerners, working in Japan nowadays. 


One Response to Japanese Woodblock Prints, a Brief Introduction

  1. Simon says:

    Thanks Bruce ! I will follow your blog closely. Cheers and all the best, Simon (Australia)

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