The art of woodblock printmaking began in the 6th century in China and slowly and gradually spread worldwide. Japanese woodblock prints, however, are unique in appearance, not only because Japanese artists incorporated the printing techniques with that of traditional painting. They perfected the complex technique of color woodblock prints with magical elegance.
It is rather primarily unique in that for the first time, the woodblock print served not as a reproduction of an already existing work of art. From the beginning of the art of printmaking in Japan in the 17th century, there was an explicit plan by artists to transform printing techniques. And in this way the art of printmaking was freed and it gave Japanese culture its own means of expression and it combined perception with culture and philosophy of life.
The inhabitants of the Japanese islands cultivated the art of building and sculpture over centuries. In the middle of the 6th century China's influence began to spread to Japan, inciting swift political, cultural and social development of the country. The reversion to self sufficiency took place starting in the 9th century, at first, however, only hesitatingly, led by some paintings and prints.
It was not until the 12th century before the unmistakable aesthetic of Japanese art arose, as seen in distinct decorative arts as well as in unique paintings from Japanese art history.
Despite art's own individual development in Japan, the connection to China was not broken. In China woodblock prints developed to reproduce already existing paintings. The famous manuals for Chinese painters, including "Characters and Pictures from the Ten Bamboo Halls" (ca. 1627) and the "Manual of the Mustard Seed Garden" (1679), show that color grading could be achieved with the analogous graining Indian ink on the printing plate, which made it possible for the prints to live up to the picturesque originals.
The first single sheets of paper emerged in parallel to China in Japan in the 17th century. Further developments in woodblock printing techniques were less concerned with printing pictures for books and more with pictures as works of art in themselves. The first such prints were black and white and the outlines in the pictures made them suited for coloring. And so the Japanese tradition of ukiyo-e was founded.
The woodblock print was made like relief prints, as opposed to intaglio print (etching, aquatints, steel engravings, etc). The printmaker, who cut the wooden mold, had to do so inversely like a negative. And so the revealed surfaces not cut away were inked and pressed onto paper, creating the print. It was also possible to print not only lines but also larger colored surfaces: ideal conditions for bringing colors into play. Early Japanese woodblock prints around 1700 were for the most part humble single or two color handcolored prints.
In 1740 the first color prints were already appearing, made mainly using three printing plates, one each for black, red and green. By 1765 they were already considered as true Japanese prints. Thus began the tradition of Japanese color woodblock printmaking.
Color woodblock printing technique is a highly complex process, in which many printing plates (the record is 78), corresponding to the number of colors, must be produced. Like their European counterparts, artists worked in studios, where the tasks, from planning to selling, were divided amongst several people. This included artists, designers, people who planned the mold, people who cut the wooden molds, and printers who pressed the proofs onto handmade paper with natural and later also aniline inks. The leader of the company was the publisher, who assigned the tasks, accepted the costs of production, and took care of sales.
The isolation of Japan between 1603 and 1868 (Edo Period) was associated with peace and prosperity, from which emerged a great need for amusement and dreams. The themes of color woodblock prints of this period also express this, especially those presented in the scenes of the kabuki theater and in the portraits of actors, courtesans and sumo wrestlers.
The prints enjoyed enormous popularity and adorned every house. In technical and artistic sense the works of the 19th century (and continued in the Meiji Period) achieved a degree of perfection as well aesthetic beauty with the finest nuances and picturesque color gradients.
The revolutions caused by the opening of the nation put Japan through a crucial test that produced a serious break in the Japanese culture. The fine art of color woodblock prints survived in any case an abrupt decline.
At the start of the 20th century, the art of the traditional Japanese woodblock print was rescued from the forgotten. It was revived in the hanga movements and modernized in various ways. The shin hanga artists sought the path into the modern in incorporating western elements. They thoroughly preserved tradition, however, with respect to teamwork, and enriched their works with western characteristics, for example light and shadows and the use of perspective.
Sosaku hanga ("creative prints") artists oriented themselves on the other hand as much as possible according to the western understanding of the modern: the artist as an individual who handles the creative process in its entirety alone. The stylistic similarities to classical European modernism, accompanied with a certain simplification or, on the other hand, a thematic opening, should not be overlooked.
Even though the works of the sosaku hanga movement sometimes appear naive, they make a connection to the international contemporary art possible. The term "moku hanga" is increasingly used for this development and it does not only include those Japanese artists who follow traditional Japanese techniques - regardless of the stylistic tendencies.
Hanga is meanwhile found all over the world and Western hanga artists are sometimes more recognized than the Japanese masters. Thanks to a yearly internationally successful exhibition of prints at the CWAJ (College Women Association of Japan) print show in Tokyo, these prints are increasingly succeeding in opening to the international public the singularity and high quality of Japanese art.
Thus the traditional Japanese art of color woodblock printing entered into the 21st century.
Author: Dieter Wanczura