Torii Kiyohiro, Two girls and a letter, 1750s, hand-coloured woodblock print, benizuri-e, Tikotin collection
Early Woodblock Prints
September 10th - November 27th, 2004
Curator: Dr. Ilana Singer
In 1603, after a long period of bloody civil wars, the Tokugawa dynasty came to power - the military regime of the shoguns - and ruled for more than 250 years. During the Tokugawa period (1603-1868) there was peace, and the economy flourished. Throughout that period Japan was virtually cut off from the outside world. Because the shoguns' seat was in Edo (today Tokyo), there began a period of wealth, luxury and pleasure. The rigid feudal government imposed various prohibitions on the merchants, but even this could not restrict their financial gains and the strengthening of the middle classes.
This increased affluence gave rise to the development of an urban culture that embodied the spirit of the age. The new bourgeoisie developed new artistic tastes reflecting the pleasures and delights of the city, in which they could indulge themselves by means of their wealth and leisure. Artistic depictions of this world were known as ukiyo-e - "pictures from the floating world". Ukiyo is the Buddhist concept that views the world as transient and full of suffering. But at the beginning of Edo it acquired a new meaning - the fleeting world of pleasure and enjoyment. The ‘floating world' is an illusion, a stylish bourgeois world without care, refined and sophisticated. For the first time in Japan's history, the lower classes were dictating the cultural mores.
The technique of woodblock printing reached Japan from China in the 8th century, and was used in the Buddhist temples for compiling sacred texts from the 11th to the 16th century. In the 12th century, prints depicting religious figures also appeared. Printed books on religious subjects were produced in limited editions, and were very costly. Only at the end of the 16th century did prints appear of other than religious subjects, including a 2-volume dictionary of Japanese and Chinese expressions, and illustrations for books.
At the beginning of the Tokugawa period, the development of the woodblock print technique permitted printing large numbers of copies, and also helped to disseminate works of art. Unlike many European and Chinese prints that were copies of paintings, the Japanese woodblock prints were original works. At the beginning of the 17th century, the Japanese print artists preferred to forego the painterly elements that could not be reproduced in a print, and methods and techniques were developed that could not be imitated by the brush. This is why the western world holds the Japanese prints in such high esteem.
The ukiyo-e artists adopted the pleasure quarters of the big cities as their subject. Unlike traditional Japanese art, intended for the aristocracy, the woodblock prints were cheap enough to be accessible even to the lower classes. Interest was mainly in depictions of the streetwalkers and the Kabuki actors, or in illustrated books or manuals. Hishikawa Moronobu (1618?-1694) and his pupils specialized in illustrating classical poems, beautiful courtesans and their lovers in the pleasure quarters, and in erotic prints known as shunga. In ca. 1700 artists of the Torii School began making prints of the Kabuki Theatre. They were initially influenced by the classical ukiyo-e of the Kano and Tosa Schools, and by the ink drawings of the Zen Buddhists.
The success of the illustrated books, and the demand by the less wealthy classes for pictures that could be displayed led to the making of ichimai-e - individual prints on separate sheets of paper, that were larger than the standard size used for books. These individual sheets were originally printed with strong black outlines, but shortly afterwards a more accurate depiction of reality was demanded, and colour was later applied by hand. For this reason the early Japanese prints are not "colour prints" in the true sense of the phrase. The first colours used were orange (tan-e) and, occasionally, yellow. Previously these colours had been used to signify joy in architecture, sculpture and in otsu-e - folk art. The pigments were made from minerals - orange from red lead that turned blue-black with time. The early prints of Hishikawa Moronobu, Torii Kiyomasu I (ca. 1690-1720), and Okumura Masanobu (1686-1764) are outstanding and can be recognized by their characteristically rhythmic, flowing lines.
A further improvement that appeared at this time was the application of powdered metals mixed with glue. The shiny black surface thus created resembled lacquer, which is why prints of this type were known as urushi-e - lacquer prints. Some lovely examples of this technique were created by Kiyomasu, Masanobu and his pupil Okumura Toshinobu (ca. 1717-1750), and Nishimura Shigenaga
For several decades, outline and hand-painted prints continued. Only after ca. 1740 were the black outlines and the colour printed together from carved woodblocks. For another twenty years only two colours were used - benizuri-e, usually red (beni) and green. The mineral from which the green was derived darkened the paper and sometimes even made holes that ruined the print. At the same time, the format changed, and there was a tendency to create smaller prints. The depictions became finer and the motifs were more subdued. This may have been because the artists felt that the green and red were too garish when used on large sheets of paper. At this stage the ukiyo-e were printed from two or three blocks in green, red and, occasionally, blue. This was the transition period before the nishiki-e, the "brocade prints" that appeared in 1764, in which each colour was printed from a different block.
Masanobu was outstanding among the early ukiyo-e artists who created beni-e (red prints) and benizuri-e, and credit for some of the developments in the field goes to him. During his working life, many noted artists were already creating ukiyo-e, including Torii Kiyohiro (1737-1766), Torii Kiyomitsu (ca. 1735-1785), Nishimura Shigenaga, and Ishikawa Toyonobu (1711-1785). Their prints depict idealized figures in magnificent robes, gracefully disposed against a hazy background. Idealization had become the ruling principle for the early ukiyo-e artists.