Japanese Woodblocks
by Lorena Overstreet Allen, M.Ed., ISA

As seen in Antiques & Art Around Florida, Winter/Spring 1998

Suzuki Harunobu. "The Priest Sosei"
Suzuki Harunobu. "The Priest Sosei"
All pictures by the author.

Japanese Artist’s Characterizations of Floating World Bijin-e

Japanese woodblock prints created by artists of the Ukiyo-e School (known as the “floating world”) captivated scenes of urban culture and entertainment during the Edo (1615-1868) and early Meiji (1868-1912) periods in Japan. Many of the artists focused their talents on producing Bijin-e (pictures of beautiful women). The floating world was transient and hedonistic, advocating decadent, Bacchanalian goals. Artistic representations of courtesans of the pleasure quarters were considered taboo in the aristocratic and religious circles. The United States became aware of the existence of Japanese Ukiyo-e as a result of Commodore Alexander Perry’s expeditions of 1853 when he brought back fine examples. Ukiyo-e was discovered in the mid-nineteenth century by the Impressionists including Whistler, Manet, Degas and Van Gogh, who emulated the strong sense of design, pattern and subtle colors.

Materials & Techniques Mastered by Ukiyo-e Artists

During the Ukiyo-e era wood planks cut from the grain of cherry wood were used, being soft and easy to carve. An expensive material, cherry wood is not used as extensively today. Creating woodblock prints is a multi-step process consisting of a skilled team including artist, engraver, printer and publisher. Artists created their designs on Japanese “washi”. In existence in Japan since ancient items, it is a special highly absorbent paper made from the fibers of the mulberry tree. High grade washi is still made completely by hand which is considered a work of art in itself. Various kinds of washi include nishinouchi, minogami, hosho and minogami. In the Ukiyo-e era the paper was an egg color while today it is bleached white. The large o-oban 60 cm. x 32 cm. became the standard size for single sheet prints in the early period of Ukiyo-e woodblocks although hashira-e (pillar prints) 70 cm x 12 cm. were also in demand for use on pillars in the home. “Gauffrate”, an embossing technique, was used to give texture, usually in the area of the woman’s kimono sleeves. “Kimekomi” is another early 1720’s luxury technique used to produce a relief pattern. “Urushi-e” or lacquer prints utilized sumi ink, having a high glue content to impart a lustrous black emphasizing hair or other design elements. “Kirazuri” was a technique in which powdered brass or mica dust was sprinkled onto a light film of glue on the surface of the print and burnished to a high polish to imitate gold dust.

Revolutionary Advances in Color of the Ukiyo-e Period

The first attempts at color from 1700 to 1720 resulted in “tan-e” (orange prints) whereby three colors, orange-red, mineral green or yellow were applied to early monochrome prints, providing effective forceful lines and highlighting details. Between 1720 and 1730 the “beni-e” (rose-red pigment) replaced tan-e . By 1744, the “benizuri-e” rose printed polychrome prints brought a transformation to the color techniques of woodblock printing. Circa 1760, the “nishiki-e” or “brocade print” emerged, This was a print with numerous colors, each color and texture carved from a different block, advancing woodblock prints to an even higher level of sophistication and refinement. The colorshaving a soft-hued, translucent quality. Color compositions emulated the beautiful brocade fabrics being imported from China during the Edo period. Circa 1860 bright, garish anilene dyes imported from Europe replaced the refined vegetable dyes in popularity and from 1890 prints that truly reflected the color tradition of Ukiyo-e ceased to be produced.

Hishikawa Moronobu.
"Standing Woman"
Hishikawa Moronobu.
"Standing Woman""

Artists of Ukiyo-e During Edo and Meiji

Each Artist had his own impression of how the women of the floating world should be characterized while utilizing the above described techniques. Ukiyo-e artist, Hishikawa Moronobu (1618-1694) was a master of line whose strong black line influenced later artists. One of the first artists to use the brocade, polychrome method his “Standing Woman”, concentrates on the design of the kimono with lines drawn in black ink. Also, the model’s “S” shaped elegance to Moronobu’s idealization of women. Suzuki Harunobu’s (circa 1770) brocade print “The Priest Sosei”, characterized his youthful, nymph-like women dressed in the fashion of the times, wearing dustcloth headgear printed in relief by the technique “kimekomi”. A poem has been inscribed in the cloud in the upper portion of the print. Harunobu used poetry to enhance his prints creating a romantic lyrical atmosphere. Kitagawa Utamaro (1754-1806) was known for focusing on the woman’s face and upper half of the body creating a radically distorted female, using exaggerated proportions, large heads set upon long slim necks and a coiffure bulging out to the edge of the print. These “large-head” views were called “okubi-e”.

Keisai Eisen. "Oiso Station, Beauties Along the Tokaido"
Keisai Eisen. "Oiso Station, Beauties Along the Tokaido"
Utamaro’s work was known to influence later artists such as Picasso and Modigliani, who were known for their distortions and elongations of the female head and body. Utamaro achieved a talent for exploiting the came from vegetables such as the petals of the safflower plant, nuances of feminine psychology, capturing subjective and fleeting emotional states in his close up studies as illustrated in “Deeply Concealed Love” and “Woman Reading A Letter”, both dated 1792, from “Ten Studies in Female Physiognomy”. In “Letter” the woman expresses emotion through her rapt facial expression and tight grip on the letter. In order to heighten the effects of flesh tone, Utamaro employed the techniques of kirazuri (mica dust background).

The Ukiyo’s Transition to Meiji

Toward the end of the Edo period, there was no longer an escape into scenes of idealized beauty. Rather, this new era demanded art that confronted life directly and without illusion. Isoda Koryusai (Circa 1739) enjoyed working in the unusually long narrow format of the pillar print as seen in “Beauties Doing the Laundry” an example of life of the beauties in the pleasure quarters. As seen in this print, Koryusai was also determined to liberate the Ukiyo beauties from Moronobu’s and Harinobu’s heavy romantic lyricism. Keisai Eisen (1790-1848) achieved great fame for his prints of women. Sharing Koryusai’s cynicism, his masterpiece “Oiso Station, Beauties Along the Tokaido”, circa 1830, captures beauties far removed from the idealism of early Edo artists. Oiso is daring in its innovations of format; the upper half of the print holds a famous landscape, while in the foreground Eisen exploits the appeal of feminine portraiture and nudity. Tsukioka Yoshitoshi (1839-92) regarded the foremost Ukiyo-e artist of the early Meiji era, is known for his penetrating insight into the Japanese woman’s psyche.
Tsukioka Yoshitoshi. "Kiyohime Changing Into A Serpent"
Tsukioka Yoshitoshi.
"Kiyohime Changing Into A Serpent"
Yoshitoshi’s intention was to stimulate the visions of Japanese folklore while personalizing his characters. His major print series produced in 1965 when he was twenty-six, entitled “One Hundred Ghost Stories” was based on supernatural themes. Living in an age of upheaval, after centuries of Japan’s isolationism, the moods of his women are passionate and intense. “The Fox Woman Kuzunoha Leaving Her Child” (1890) from “Thirty-Six Ghosts”, illustrating Yoshitoshi’s paulownia leaf monogram and distinctive, ragged borders is a charming tale of a woman who is transformed into a fox, encouraging the belief that reflections and shadows show the true nature of supernatural creatures. Similarly, “Kiyohime Changing Into A Serpent” depicts a bent figure emerging from the water; the patterns in her kimono suggests serpent’s scales. To enhance the impact of his subject matter, Yoshitoshi changed from traditional vegetable dyes to the bright, garish hues of new aniline dyes. Another technique used by Yoshitoshi was of incorporating the inherent grain of the cherry wood planks giving depth and texture to solid areas of color.garish hues of new aniline dyes. Another technique used by Yoshitoshi was of incorporating the inherent grain of the cherry wood planks giving depth and texture to solid areas of color.

Kitagawa Utamaro. "Deeply Concealed Love"
Kitagawa Utamaro.
"Deeply Concealed Love"

Florida’s Market for Ukiyo-e
Ukiyo-e were printed in the hundreds to thousands. The minimum number of sheets issued of a design was usually 200. If a first edition was well received, subsequent sheets would be printed. Unfortunately events such as the great earthquake of 1923, World War II and the passage of item have reduced drastically the numbers now in existence. An exception is the abundance of woodblocks to be found in Florida due to the number of retirees who were stationed in Japan during WWII in the 1940’s and/or who traveled the East extensively, collecting the prints and who now want to sell their collections. Collectors and appraisers in Florida have access to woodblocks while attending estate sales and auctions. While today, woodblock prints of the floating world are regarded a unique art form, it is best to be a discerning collector/purchaser. When appraising woodblock prints to determine genuineness it is important to note the quality of the paper, (the value of the paper is decreased if not handmade); sharpness of the impression and beauty and freshness of the colors (whether vegetable dye or aniline dyes). Prices of Ukiyo-e fluctuate with the area and the market. Currently there is a new found appreciation of Ukiyo-e both in Japan and the West, thus prices are competitive as Japan buyers increasingly proceed to reclaim their creative heritage.
About the author:
Lorena O. Allen, M.Ed., ISA, is a educator and appraiser of fine art and accredited member of the International Society of Appraisers. Ms. Allen has taught history of art at Palm Beach Community College and Florida Atlantic University focusing on Chinese and Japanese Art. She is President of L. Allen Appraisal Studios, Inc.

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