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The floating world: Japanese woodblock prints

By Jakob Schmidt

In the Edo period of Japan (1615-1868 CE); sharp lines; fine; detailed drawings; textured paper and the bright painted colours of pastoral scenes, portraits and mythical creatures combined in a new genre of woodblock printing called ukiyo-e. The tradition of Japanese woodblock printing goes all the way back to 764 CE, when the 48th monarch of Japan, Empress Koken, ordered the printing of a million woodblock prints of Buddhist scrolls to be distributed. Woodblock prints were always about quantity, about getting the combination of coloured hand-drawn art and short texts pressed and printed and into the hands of as many people as possible.

The process of creating a woodblock print is sophisticated and inherently collaborative. An artist first must draw and paint an image, and then a carver must transfer the image to a piece of wood and carefully hand-carve every line of the image. Often as many as 10 unique woodblocks must be carved for colour prints, with each particular colour requiring its own block. Inking artists employed by printmakers then ink each carved block with a colour and hand press them into paper, one after another. This stamp-like pressing creates the distinctive textured surface of a woodblock print.

The most famous of these ukiyo-e is the The Great Wave off Kanagawa by Katsushika Hokusai, probably the most important ukiyo-e artist and one of the most renowned Japanese artists in history. Hokusai worked as an artist for seventy years, producing over 30,000 paintings and sketches. His famous wave painting crossed over into Europe and ended up directly inspiring many artists like Vincent Van Gogh.

Attentive viewers will notice that near the centre of the work, a snow-capped Mount Fuji juts out from the horizon. This is because this painting is only the first in Hokusai’s Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji series. From this view, we know that the fishermen pictured are returning from Tokyo on little barges called oshiokuri-bune, used to transport live fish to market. The poor fisherman have emptied their boats and are about to be unceremoniously crushed by the rogue wave that dominates the frame. Hokusai’s wave of little claws curves up and around the serene backdrop, threatening to crash across the roll of the sea on the right side of the frame. It is a scene of vibrant contrasts and motion, a stark depiction of nature and humanity.

Ukiyo-e was an affordable art form for mass production; one print typically cost about the same as a bowl of soba noodles. Due to this affordability, the art form achieved widespread popularity and soon became closely associated with international ideas of Japanese art. Given that many great Japanese artists were devoted to ukiyo-e, it’s not surprising that such an affordable form gained prominence. The form continues to internationally inspire artists today and has profoundly influenced the development of popular Japanese art like manga and anime.



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