So much of art history and the art world tends to revolve around western art and Europe. The great waves of the Renaissance or modern art, are almost entirely discussed in Western terms, but non-Western art has been a crucial part of our world’s artistic evolution, and prints are a classic example. During the 17th century European art prints were obsessed with a rapidly expanding range of intaglio techniques for metal, focused on linework and cross-hatched shading, while in Japan the focus was on colour, and the simpler past-technology medium of the woodblock art print.
Woodblock printing, often called woodcut printing in Europe, first emerged in China, primarily for creating patterns on fabric. The technique involves cutting the non-printing parts of an image out of a block of wood, then inking the relief pattern or image which is pressed against the fabric. European artists tended to look only at the shortcomings; the difficulty of creating shade and lighting, or fine details, pushing them into intaglio techniques, but in Japan print artists created a style that worked beautifully with the simplicity of woodblock.
Ukiyo-e woodblock printing is an art style almost anyone would recognise, often flat and deceptively simple, and sharing many of the features of pop art, contemporary digital illustration, and modern Asian flat artwork styles which emerged centuries later. The earliest prints were quite simple black and white designs of elegant women, but gradually artists expanded the number of woodblocks used for each print so as to utilise multiple colours for artworks. The form flourished for the next two centuries capturing landscapes, flowers, animals, Kabuki actors, sumo wrestlers, and scenes from history and folk stories.
The emergence of ukiyo-e woodblock art print masters
Many artists were fundamental to developing the artform; Moronobu first popularised the style, Masanobu drove forward the use of multiple woodblocks and colours, and Harunobu’s brocade prints made colour standard, with ten or more different blocks used for each design. The complexity continued to increase as artists sought the most they could get for the medium, focusing on a slow hand printing process rather than any kind of mechanisation, so that colours could be carefully blended or graduated by highly skilled printers.
The 1700s saw masters like Kiyonaga, Sharaku, and Utamaro who were widely admired for their limited edition portraits of beautiful women and famous Kabuki actors. However, the artists remembered the most are those from the 1800s, when ukiyo-e reached a zenith of popularity, and a breathtaking complexity to achieve such seeming simplicty.
Utagawa Kunisada was probably the most prolific artist of the period, producing around 20,000 original artworks of typical ukiyo-e subjects, though his style varied dramatically; perhaps in response to popularity, or perhaps in a search for something very different from the pervading norms of the style. His work varied in quality, most likely driven by market forces, but he was always interesting in terms of his confidence at trying something completely different.
Hiroshige and the legendary Hokusai woodblock prints
The two artists most often brought up in such lists and articles are Hiroshige and Hokusai. Utagawa Hiroshige was probably the last great ukiyo-e woodcut art print master; he brought a poetry to traditional subjects and had a phenomenal understanding for effective compositions. He was studied extensively by European modern artists like van Gogh, Degas, Manet, Monet, and Gauguin to increase the mastery of their own work. But the giant of the genre, with an equally powerful impact on European artists from the modern and contemporary periods, was Katsushika Hokusai, recognised around the world for his piece featuring Mount Fuji; The Great Wave.
Looking like a work of pop art, perhaps by Roy Lichtenstein, the piece is widely recognised in pop culture, iconically framing the famous mountain in just one of thirty-six art prints released as a collection of views of Mount Fuji. The series responded to a wave of travelling amongst people in Japan, and was typical of his work which did a huge amount to progress ukiyo-e from mostly producing portraits, towards subjects like landscapes, plants and animals.
His career produced over 30,000 images extending into paintings and drawings, and his impact is felt in one uniquely modern Japanese artform. Hokusai was the first artist to use the term “Manga”, using it to refer to comedic sketches he would create for his students to copy. His impact has been felt throughout contemporary and modern art such as the early impressionists, and many contemporary artists continue re-exploring the style today in new forms of flat artworks and the contemporary woodblock art print.