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"During the Edo period, a woodblock print was the same price as a bowl of noodles. He advised me not to be expensive, not to be elitist. He said it's for the public because it's printed art. Make it accessible to the world." (Tokuriki Tomikichiro cited by the artist Daniel Kelly)
Moku Hanga are the Japanese words for "woodblock prints". This is the first part of an essay in which the author, Dieter Wanczura, presents a thesis for a new mass market for Japanese woodblock prints, a popular moku hanga movement - comparable to the concept of ukiyo-e (images of the floating world) in the 18th and 19th century.
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The technique of carving woodblocks and making printed impressions on paper from these blocks was the only technique available to publish text and images in Japan until the second half of the nineteenth century. Western art friends usually know the colorful print images known as ukiyo-e. But few know that the production of text books - e-hon - was also entirely based on the same technique.
Until the Treaty of Kanagawa in 1854 Japan had lived as an isolated country for more than 300 years. No Japanese citizen was allowed to leave the country, and no foreigners were allowed to enter Japan. Trade with other nations was in the exclusive hands of the Dutch who had negotiated a successful trade monopoly with Japan. But even the presence of the Dutch was limited to the tiny, artificial island of Deshima in Nagasaki harbor.
During this period of isolation Japan fortunately experienced no wars. Ruled by the shoguns, a system of military leaders firmly in the hands of the mighty clan of the Tokugawa family, the population of Japan lived in a medieval society based on a rigid class system. The absence of wars assured a modest economic prosperity. And an idle warrior class of Japanese samurai favored the development of a lively and unique towns culture, especially in the capital Edo (today Tokyo). Historians estimate that Edo was next to London the largest city in the world towards the end of the 18th century.
The Edo period lasted from ca. 1603 until 1868 when the last shogun resigned. After the Edo period followed the Meiji period, represented by Emperor Meiji with influential provincial leaders behind him who held the real power in their hands.
All kinds of amusements like theaters, brothel quarters or popular sumo matches thrived. This amusement 'industry' needed publications - advertising posters, theater program announcements, calendars, home decorations, poetry, pornography (" shunga-e"), announcements, presents for friends and family members, publications of latest news, and more. This was the economic ground for ukiyo-e, the Japanese form of woodblock prints during the Edo period..
The Japanese had learned the technique of woodblock printmaking from the Chinese. But they developed it to heights that have been unmatched in the world. The high level of ukiyo-e was on one hand the result of Japan's isolation that prevented Western techniques like the invention of the letter press or lithography of coming into the country. On the other hand the extraordinary level of Japanese woodblock printmaking was achieved by specialization. A woodblock print was the result of a teamwork of four people: the artist, the carver, the printer and the publisher.
The artist was the one who made the designs. The carvers and printers made the important job of carving the blocks and making the print impressions. Their job was technically the most demanding one. Carvers and printers needed many years of apprenticeship to achieve the necessary skill to do the job.
And there was finally the publisher. He was the entrepreneur who commissioned the artist and paid the carver and the printer. He invested the money and his main interest was selling. He was comparable to a film producer. Like film producers, the ukiyo-e publisher wanted a commercially successful product. And similar to movies, every now and then products of high artistic quality, however commercial flops, were launched into the market. But overall publishers were guided by the demand of the market and not by individualistic preferences of an artist.
Ukiyo-e were sold cheap - for the price of a bowl of noodles. Thus they were affordable not only for a few but for common city dwellers. Buying an ukiyo-e was more like buying a book or a magazine.
In order to make money a design had to be published in large quantities. The Japanese prints of the 18th and 19th century did not know a limited edition concept. The publishers made as many copies as they could sell. The only limitation was the wearing-off of the wooden blocks. After several thousand copies the impression quality deteriorates very visibly. But that was not necessarily the end of a design. The woodblocks could be repaired and if that was no longer possible, skilled artisans carved new blocks. We call these today recuts or reproductions or fukkoku in Japanese.
There is an old discussion among art lovers and collectors of Japanese prints, art critics, book writers etc. if ukiyo-e should be regarded as art or as media. I do not want to participate in this discussion. It is basically a question what kind of understanding of art a person has. In today's art market, in which individuals or institutions like museums are willing to pay several hundred thousand dollars for a white canvas, this discussion does in my view not lead to anything for people or companies like artelino that are involved in selling art.
For those who are interested in this discussion, I recommend an excellent article that a friend of mine, Dan McKee wrote some time ago for artelino. You find it on this web site under Ukiyo-e - Art or Media?.
Later in this article I will outline my ideas about a new movement of a modern ukiyo-e mass product - popular moku hanga. What counts for me is the simple fact that I think it is desirable that common people hang a hand-made art print on the walls of their homes instead of or in addition to machine-produced posters.
Nothing against posters by the way. Art business people can learn a lot from companies producing posters (These guys are for instance excellent when it comes to occupy top positions in search engines.) But a hand-made art print represents in my understanding a higher level of cultural education.
Author: Dieter Wanczura
(March 2007, updated November 2009)
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