I have a collection of postcards of Japanese Prints (ukiyo-e) which has travelled with me for last forty years. They have been added to over time and in more recent years, the last 15, they have been on my office wall at different workplaces often generating conversations with student clients who came to see me.
I can’t tell you what it was that first piqued my interest except that I saw them on regular visits to the British Museum and fell in love. Initially I was attracted by prints of the beautiful kimono clad ladies but eventually I preferred the landscapes which revealed glimpses of everyday life. It was the images that mattered to me and I spent very little time finding out more although I did learn the names of some of the more well-known artists. When I saw the opportunity to volunteer for the Dressed to impress exhibition it seemed like it was heaven sent.
The exhibition has certainly inspired me to learn more. I have enjoyed the background reading on the Edo Period to help me understand the exhibition objects and this has also pushed me forward in my study of Japanese Prints as well as Japanese paintings. The questions asked by our visitors encourage me to take a topic and find out more. When it is quiet while I am on duty, I get quite a lot of research done as I see this as my Japanese study time!
I have furthered my knowledge recently in two ways. I was lucky enough to be able to get to the Hokusai exhibition at the British Museum last year and revelled in the opportunity to see that great man’s late work post the Great Wave (1829-33) which was completed when he was about 70. Early in February this year I had the chance of going to a study afternoon at Bristol Museum and Art Gallery where they have a fine collection of Japanese Prints – not on display because they fade so easily. This came about because I am an Art Pass holder and it was a regional event on offer. The Curator of the Eastern Collection at Bristol, Kate Newnham, had been in receipt of an Art Fund scholarship to spend some time in Japan and she was able to share with us her visit to some of the Master woodblock carvers and printers of today.
The process is pretty much the same today as in the past. The artist passes their design on thin paper to a woodblock carver, usually via a publisher who funded it all. The woodblock carver pastes the design onto a prepared wood block, usually cherry wood as it is both hard but with enough yield to take the carving. The tools are like those used by Wood Engravers, if anyone reading took the chance to go to the Society of Wood Engravers exhibition at BRSLI recently. The Japanese woodblock carver will create a separate carved woodblock for each colour of ink used in the picture. Kate had negotiated with one of the carver and printer brothers she visited to get a print of each colour stage of the printing of a Hiroshige print they have. We saw the 14 different colour stages presented to print “Shono from the 53 stations on the Tokaido Highway”. This was stunning and sometimes it is hard to see what exactly has been added with each additional colour.
There is much to admire in the artistic design and woodblock carving but the printer is also very skilled. They know exactly how much ink to use and how much pressure to place to make it print evenly and by the time the next one is printed, the previous one has dried so they can be stacked up. It was amazing to see the carver and the printer today still working on the floor in very confined spaces often with their legs covered by a quilt just as it would have been in the past. Kate told us that one of the ways you can tell if the print is near the end of the run or the beginning is to look at a fine detail like the hair. In early imprints you will see well defined individual hairs but as the block gets more saturated with the ink it expands. Often it is left overnight and contracts, so detail like that is lost. I think 100 copies per fresh block is considered the norm. Once the work passes from artist to publisher, the artist has no more control and the publisher would have multiple editions of the most popular prints even changing the colours often for economic reasons. The prints were sold through travelling sellers or retailers and were hugely popular as many were of popular Kabuki actors or courtesans, the celebrities of their day.
Colour prints seem to date from circa 1740, prior to that prints would be black and white and some may have had some basic hand colouring. It is these monochrome prints I am now exploring as I realise I have only been looking at predominantly late 18th and 19th century coloured prints. Mostly vegetable print dyes were used but Hokusai and Hiroshige became early users of Prussian Blue, a chemical pigment rather than natural one and we were able to look closely at an example “Sazai Hall, Five Hundred Arhat temple” from the series 36 views of Mount Fuji. Obviously he used Prussian Blue along with traditional indigo within his prints. The Bristol collection does have a copy of the iconic “Great Wave” or to give it it’s proper title “Under the wave at Kanagawa” and if you have never studied it closely, I urge you to do so. This work and other significant Japanese Prints profoundly influenced the French Impressionists and Post-Impressionists. Monet acquired 250 Japanese prints he was so taken with them.
The printmakers have enough business to keep them busy today. Designs for votive slips to leave at shrines are still a popular item and there are still artists producing work.
There will be three themed exhibitions of the Japanese Prints at Bristol Museum and Art Gallery to which I will definitely be going:
Hokusai and Hiroshige 22 September 2018 to 7 January 2019
Life in the City 19 January to 23 April 2019
Turning Seasons: nature in Japanese prints 4 May 2019 to 4 September 2019.
I would be delighted to meet with any staff or volunteers with a similar interest as my knowledge is still very small.
Sue B, February 2018