The History of Ukiyo-e and Woodblock Printing in Japan
The history of woodblock printing in Japan is both long and distinguished, dating as far back as 770 CE. During the Heian period woodblock prints, both illustrations and texts, were extensively used in the service of Buddhism.1 At first these prints were simple, using only a single color but over time the works began to become more complex, with multiple colors and a variety of subjects being depicted as the Japanese worked on reforming and perfecting the art.
Woodblock printing began to be used for the artistic form of ukiyo-e, a school of painting and print design which began late in the sixteenth century CE that took its basic themes from the day to day world but adapted many classical methods to the treatment of its subjects. This could be seen as depicting the “fleeting floating world” and in living for the moment.2 This is based in part on the Buddhist notion that life itself is fleeting and impermanent. The first man who has generally been credited with making woodblock artists famous was Hishikawa Moronobu (1618-1694).3
Patronage during the Momoyama Era changed as local lords or daimyo took control of the government under the leadership of the military dictator or shogun. The favored subjects of woodblock painting in ukiyo-e included things like the women of the pleasure district, known as bijin-ga, erotica known as shun-ga and of famous kabuki actors. Lane contends that during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries these subjects made up two-thirds of the images created.4 Examples of these include works by members of the Torii school such as Goro Uprooting a Bamboo Tree, by Kiyomasu or Interior of a Bathhouse, by Kiyonaga. Prints such as these were made to be replicated and distributed as both art and advertisement to the samurai and chonin (merchants and artisans) that frequented the pleasure districts and kabuki plays in major towns.
During the nineteenth century there was a general decline in woodblock paintings featuring ukiyo-e subjects, especially after the Meiji Restoration. Japan basically opened up its borders to westerners for the first time since the beginning of the Edo period (about 250 years of seclusion). The art world of Japan was not unaffected by this western influence, which facilitated the decline of ukiyo-e as a subject and woodblock printing as a medium and saw a general decline in books and prints. In the early twentieth century more Japanese artists were influenced by the concept of sosaku-hanga (creative print) which meant that art could be more of a personal expression and subject could be more varied. There was a countermovement known as fukusei-hanga (Japanese style prints) but this was only a small remembrance in comparison to the ukiyo-e woodblock prints during the Edo period. Woodblock printing was also used for other purposes at this time, for example it was used in newspapers to depict scenes from the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-1895 and the Russo-Japanese war of 1904-1905. It should be noted, however, that western visitors to Japan did have a desire for traditional woodblock prints especially in the years between World War I and World War II in contrast for the overall Japanese interest in western culture and innovations.5
The Postwar years of the 1950’s and 1960’s once again saw younger artists move towards western mediums and styles, but others still practiced the Japanese forms of woodblock prints. Some like, Yoshida Hodaka still had traditional subjects as in his print Samurai, but he used an abstract format to convey his thoughts on the subject.
Lane, Richard. 1978. Images from the Floating World: The Japanese Print. New York: Dorset Press.
Mason, Penelope. 2005. History of Japanese Art: Second Edition. Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Pearson Prentice Hall.
Merrit, Helen, and Yamada, Nanako. 1992. Guide to Modern Japanese Woodblock Prints: 1900-1975. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.