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The awareness of Japanese prints in Europe and North America began at the end of the 19th century when art and artisan products of Japan were exported to Western countries in large numbers. In Europe and especially in France a hype for everything Japanese set in. The French called it "Japonisme". Since then a worldwide community of collectors and art friends of Japanese prints has developed.
First Publication: December 2008
Latest Update: May 2013
Around 1439 the German goldsmith Gutenberg invented the printing press. Before this milestone invention, books or images could only be multiplied by copying them by hand (done by monks) or making a manual copy from a block of wood. In the course of the invention of the printing press other techniques developed in Europe to produce written documents or images in larger numbers like moveable type printing, lithography or printing from steel plates.
The development in Japan was quite different. The Japanese had learned from the Chinese how to create books and images by carving onto blocks of wood. Over centuries the Japanese had further developed and refined this technique to heights that have remained unrivaled until our days.
Towards the middle of the 18th century the Japanese managed to produce colored images by cutting more than one block - one for each color plus one for the outlines - the key block.
This independent development of the Japanese method of creating and copying images and books was the result of a self-imposed isolation of the island nation since around 1600. The isolation was complete. No Japanese was allowed to leave the islands and no foreigners were allowed to enter Japan - with very few exceptions to keep up a minimum of trade. The isolation lasted until 1853.
The woodblock print has remained the dominating working method for Japanese printmakers until our days. The technique has even been adopted by an international community of artists worldwide who appreciate Japanese tools, materials and methods as a true and original method to create art prints.
During the industrial revolution in Japan towards the end of the 19th century other techniques like lithography and the offset press quickly replaced woodblock printing as a method to produce books and media. But woodblock printmaking survived as an art technique. At the beginning of the 20th century it developed from a method to produce printed media to a way to create "fine" art.
After 1945 the Japanese art scene became international. Western printing techniques like silkscreen, etching or mixes of different techniques have been adopted by Japanese printmakers. But the woodblock print has remained dominant.
Japanese prints can be grouped into basically 5 art periods and movements that vary distinctively from each other - Edo, Meiji, shin hanga, sosaku hanga and modern prints after world war II.
Edo prints are everything made until 1867. These prints represent the classical period of Japanese woodblock printmaking. Some early art critics went even so far to regard everything made after ca. 1810 as "degenerated". But this is rather stupid, I think. Edo prints, by the way, were created as mass media, for instance as advertising sheets for kabuki theaters.
Meiji prints are similar in style and subjects to Edo prints. But you can recognize them usually quite easily by their gaudy, strong colors and often by the subjects like Japanese people in Western uniforms or the display of Western technical "achievements" like locomotives.
Shin hanga means "new prints". It was a renaissance of the old Japanese woodblock printmaking with a bit of Western modernization like the use of perspective and the use of the effects of shadow and light which the Japanese had learned from the French impressionists. The shin hanga movement set in around 1910 and lasted until around 1950. A typical shin hanga (print) was not created entirely by the artist himself. He made only the design. The carving of the blocks and the printing was done by highly skilled experts. And above all was a publisher who organized everything and who was responsible for selling the final product.
Sosaku hanga ("creative prints") set in as an art movement around the same time as shin hanga. The artists of the sosaku hanga movement were vigorously opposed to the old Japanese concept of printmaking in a team of artists and artisans. They had learned about the Western concept of creativity of an artist, and thought that the artist must not only make the design but also the whole process of block carving and printing himself. But that was a tough task to do. Imagine, a skilled carver or printer needed up to 10 years of apprenticeship and training!
Thus, sosaku hanga prints usually look technically challenged, simple and sometimes even clumsy, but very original. And this is what a small community of collectors appreciates so much. Sosaku hanga has a charm of its own.
And finally there are the modern prints made after world war II. These prints can be everything in technique and subject. There is a huge diversity with great and fantastic artists to discover. Nevertheless, nearly all of these prints have kept a distinctive Japanese look. But there are also the same kind of boring, often abstract prints that you could find anywhere on this globe - in my very personal view.
Modern Japanese prints, by the way, fetched a lot of awards in international art shows after world war II. And since then they have kept a high reputation worldwide.
Typical classical subjects of Japanese prints before 1945 are theater actors and scenes, landscapes, images of beautiful women, called "bijin" (usually they show prostitutes), flowers, birds and other animals and images of warriors and characters from Japan's history and the world of legends.
In addition one finds some rather specialized subjects connected to specific periods like scenes from the Sino-Japanese and the Russo-Japanese wars of 1894/95 and 1904/05 or prints showing Western foreigners and Western technology like railway stations from the period of industrialization in Japan.
The most confusing thing for art friends who come into contact with Japanese prints for the first time, is the missing concept, or I should better say non-concept, of precise marking and identification of Japanese prints. We often receive questions like "Is this a first edition print?" or "How large is the total edition?".
Forget it. Anything created before 1945 does not know the concept of limited editions, let alone of numbering prints, let alone precise dating, let alone hand-signing of prints with very few exceptions before world war II.
The Japanese regarded woodblocks as a kind of copy machine - only limited by the wearing off of the blocks with deteriorating impression quality with each additional copy. You can pull maybe a maximum of 10,000 prints from one woodblock before it is unusable. The difference in quality is the main reason why collectors strive to get early impressions and why they are willing to pay more for them (The collector community speaks of early "editions", which is misleading).
Sometimes you have some odd stamps on prints that allow a more precise dating. And sometimes even the few indicators are contested in their meaning among experts. And for you as a newbie to Japanese prints all these characters and stamps on the print are a mystery anyway because you cannot read them.
In a nutshell, Japanese prints are the complete opposite of an exact science. It is a coudda, woudda, shoudda - a huge mess. Even experts need their guts feelings and must often make guesses, for instance from the type of paper in order to make a more or less reliable identification of a Japanese print.
For a beginner in Japanese prints this is definitely one of the most annoying things. If you cannot live with it, keep your fingers off from Japanese prints created before 1945 and take a look at modern Japanese prints that usually follow the Western concept of limited edition, signed and numbered.
When it comes to the aspect of value and prices of Japanese prints there is one very important factor that you as a beginner should be aware of. The condition of a print is paramount. The same design could cost $500 or only $100 or even be unsalable due to deficiencies in condition.
Typical flaws in condition are wormholes, faded colors, trimmed (cut off) margins, creases, spots and dirt, mat burnishing and a lot more.
There is no general rating scheme for the condition of Japanese prints. The same print may be rated by one dealer as "fine" and by another as "fair". For you as a beginner it is very difficult to recognize condition. You have to rely on an experienced and trustworthy person, usually the dealer from whom you buy.
Let's conclude this paragraph with an advice on the conservation of Japanese art prints. If you want to preserve their value to the best, you should store them between two sheets of acid-free paper and keep them in a drawer. Any framing and exposure to light will inevitably reduce the quality of any art print. If you want to decorate your home, buy inexpensive reproductions (about $80 to $150) or buy good, inexpensive but excellent prints by contemporary artists from large editions like for instance Katsuyuki Nishijima or Ryusei Okamoto.
That is one of the more difficult questions to answer on this public page because I cannot give you any specific recommendations nor warnings without being in trouble.
The good thing first. At least 99% of all dealers in Japanese prints are honest, knowledgeable, hard-working and trustworthy persons. The bad news is that the small minority that I would not recommend is hard to recognize. They may be active with such labels like "established since 1345" or "member of the interplanetary Japanese art association" or "deputy chairman of the Timbuktu conferences on Japanese prints" or they may carry no such "decorative labels" at all.
You have different platforms where to buy. In major cities like London, New York, San Francisco and of course Tokyo you find brick and mortar galleries. Many dealers in Japanese prints attend art shows. And since the end of the 1990s you find most dealers on the Internet as well as online art auctions that offer Japanese prints.
When you buy at an art show or from a real world gallery, you should accept that you may have to pay more than in an online auction. Attending art shows and keeping up a gallery with show rooms is more expensive than selling on the internet. But you have the advantage of face-to-face contact. And if the dealer knows his job you will be advised well. And last but not least, you can see the prints in real.
You can find a lot of Japanese prints on Ebay. In my view it is basically a huge jungle, and not the ideal starting point for beginners who do not have the knowledge to navigate safely through the wilderness. The Japanese prints offered reach from papers produced by a copy machine to reasonable offers by serious dealers who want to find new clients, to offers of piles of junk.
Over the last years a new type of dealers have emerged. They offer cheap prints (sometimes mixed with better, but slightly over-priced ones) in very poor condition. The prints are bought for very little money in very large quantities in Tokyo. In the descriptions these junk papers are praised with flowery words as great and rare jewels of Asian art. This stuff that is not worth the paper on which it was once printed, has started with obviously great commercial success on Ebay, but is now to be found also outside of Ebay.
Prices for Japanese prints have risen over decades with a few interruptions like the oil-crisis in 1973. Until the turn of the century the market was characterized by a lack of transparency. The Internet has changed a lot. Now the market is rather split. Prices for prints that are easily available in large numbers (they are nicknamed the "kunis" and "yoshis") have even dropped since the early years of the new millennium.
This effected however only the prints in the lower and middle section of the price range. In my view the reason is simply the easy access and availability over the Internet that forced a correction of prices. The market mechanisms of offer and demand could not work before due to a lack of transparency and competition.
Rare collector pieces have however seen no price slump over the recent years, rather the opposite. The price development reflects the changes of the Western societies in my view. The rich have become richer and the middle class gets more and more squeezed by the effects of globalization.
The current worldwide financial and economic crisis has from all I know still no influence on demand and market prices in the upper section. The demand for prints in the section of $100 to $500 has however become lack-luster. But I do not expect prices to come down - for several reason. They have not gone up before with the recent art bubble. And secondly, prices have in my view already hit bottom level several years ago. This has slowed the flux of prints from Japan, still the major "treasure chamber" for Japanese prints worldwide.
Author: Dieter Wanczura
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