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JAPANESE WOODBLOCK PRINTING OF LEADING PRINTMAKERS UKIYO-E

18th AND 19th CENTURY

FROM THE COLLECTION OF HAMBIS PRINTMAKING MUSEUM  

Japanese woodblock prints in Ukiyo-e style became known in the West only after 1850 and were immediately appreciated by artists and collectors. The translation of the term ukiyo, meaning “floating world” and e, meaning “picture”, together meaning “pictures of the floating world” created some uncertainty. The word is charged with the Buddhist concept of a world of impermanence (anicca) and the images picturing an unstable life as it unfolds in front of our eyes; its temporariness and “elusiveness”. However, without a religious background, in Ukiyo-e works of the 17th century, it is about the feverish life of an ever-changing society that moves towards everyday life pleasure. This concept transcends the centuries as well as Ukiyo-e, although different themes developed through history, society and its everyday tasks. It continues to form the basis of Ukiyo-e prints up until the 20th century.

Over that period, the technique also remained unchanged. Early single-colour woodblock prints were replaced by colour ones, following the finalization of the technique by Suzuki Harunobu around 1760. Since, a block (plate) is used for designing the print and as many blocks as necessary for different colour layers. The artist produces the main work with Indian ink on thin paper. Engraving and printing are carried out by teams of artisans in workshops. The artisans glue the painting onto a wooden surface and carve the areas where the paper is white. The wood is then covered by ink and printed on paper. The linear copies (same number of copies and colours is used) are then glued onto blocks of wood, the surfaces of which are carved wherever the design has parts which are not of the colour in question. The same process is repeated for each colour. The first block is inked –for inking brushes and water-soluble inks are used– and is then printed by hand (the baren, a tool made of twisted cord covered with a bamboo sheath, rubs the back of the paper placed on the inked block). On the same paper multiple blocks are successively printed for each colour thanks to the effective system of kento (“pass marks”) which allows them to register correctly on the same sheet of paper.  

Ukiyo-e themes vary. They initially depicted urban life scenes: popular recreations and entertainment, sumo wrestlers, popular actors, street scenes, beautiful, well dressed women engaged in leisurely pursuits such as those working in the “green houses” (brothels) of the licensed pleasure quarters Yoshiwara in Edo (present - day Tokyo). 

Bijin-ga (pictures of beautiful women) lasted through the centuries, up until the 20th century. The same applies to shunga –erotic scenes- notwithstanding censorship. During the 18th century, the themes of Ukiyo-e expanded, depicting more open scenes prevailing in society, such as entertainment, recreation and everyday scenes. Although generally prohibited, sex frequently appeared as an Ukiyo-e theme. Publishers and creators of shunga ignored censorship. Under the influence of west perspective, in the first half of the 19th century, several artists produce works that depict scenes beyond the themes liked at the time –flora and fauna- such as landscapes while developing, at the same time scenes from everyday life at home in the streets. Towards the end of the 19th century, even in traditional themes, elements from the west were reflected in the Ukiyo-e scenes while the influence from the west was also evident in artistic trends and styles.  

Copies from the first edition are few yet precious. They are protected in the collections of museums and collectors and are rarely exhibited. However, in the 19th century, the manner in which woodprints are printed –artists on the one hand, and engravers and artisans on the other which frequently remained anonymous– as well as the great interest of the Japanese and the West for Ukiyo-e, led to the “authentic” reproduction of woodblock prints: the design is accurately reproduced, usually carrying the same dimensions, the block/blocks are similarly engraved and printed with the same process and colours. 

Hambis Printmaking Museum hosts several Ukiyo-e in its collection, coming from the 18th and 19th century as well as some valuable reproductions of the 20th century reflecting a wide range of themes and artists. It gladly offers the visitor an opportunity to enjoy a journey through Japanese traditional woodblock printing. The works of reputable as well as anonymous artists are exhibited including, amongst others Masanobu, Harunobu, Eishōsai Chōki, Eisui, Shunshō, Eisen, Utamaro, Kiyonaga, Hiroshige, Kunisada, Kuniyoshi and Yoshikuni.

The Ukiyo-e exhibition will be open at Hambis Printmaking Museum at Platanistia from 24 June to 30 July 2017. 

Simultaneously, two printmaking exhibitions will run at Famagusta Gate, Nicosia: “Contemporary Japanese Printmaking” and “The works of MI-LAB Japan” from 21 June until 1st July 2017. 

Hélène Reeb – Tsangaris

June 2017