Unfolding the Tradition: The Production of Ukiyo-e Woodblock Prints
By Nicole Wallin '19
Nostalgic Femininity and From Flowers to Warriors conceptualize the schism between the feudal past and the modernizing present for the Meiji-period viewer living in the late nineteenth century. Through lighthearted imagery, the woodblock prints featured in these exhibitions draw inspiration from the momentary pleasures of the mortal world. The nostalgic images emphasize themes of ukiyo-e, or “pictures of the floating world,” made famous in the previous Edo period (1603–1868). This essay examines more than two centuries of print genre development, including the evolution from its early Buddhist roots to the modern prints found in these shows, and explores the evolving technical processes behind their creation.
Before Japanese printmakers began producing prints in the ukiyo-e genre, eighth-century craftsmen mainly used the medium of printmaking to disseminate religious texts, which were often Buddhist scriptures. This text-focused approach changed somewhat abruptly after painter Iwasa Matabei (1578–1650) laid the early groundwork for the ukiyo-e genre during the Edo period by creating imagery that reflected a commoner’s approach to aesthetics. Iwasa is often known as a “man of mystery” (nazo no jinbutsu), and his approach to addressing themes from the lived world became a bridge between painting and what would become the ukiyo-e style of woodblock printmaking.
Japanese artwork was more conservative before ukiyo-e’s birth. Previously, two-dimensional works contained religious icons, expansive landscape scenes, and courtly references. In contrast, ukiyo-e was a popular genre that appealed to seventeenth-century artisans and merchants. It was known for its inked, wiry outlines and vibrant colors, which effectively transferred onto silk paper, hanging scrolls, hand scrolls, folding screens, and sliding doors through the use of carved inked blocks. Print artists worked efficiently, following the common ukiyo-e theme of capturing human expression during extraordinary events. Their work framed the experience of townspeople, courtesans, kabuki actors, folk legends, and warriors. These subjects often corresponded to short stories and novellas that gained popularity as townspeople became affluent in the seventeenth century. As ukiyo-e prints became popular, demand for them could be seen all around Honshū, the main land body in the Japanese archipelago, and more specifically, in the cities and towns along the Tokaidō Road, Ise Bay, and Lake Biwa.
The Japanese government did not approve of the conspicuous consumption of ukiyo-e among the merchant class. The government issued intermittent laws that restricted an artist’s available themes, subjects, sizes, and materials. To court officials, the new ukiyo-e style appeared lewd since they were an antithesis to the traditionally commissioned religious and courtly artworks. While intent on censoring the print medium, these sporadic edicts from the early to the mid-nineteenth century had the opposite effect—such laws heightened artistic skill and ingenuity among print designers. Some artists, such as Utamaro Kitagawa (1753–1806), radically challenged the ruling authorities of the time by creating prints based on scenes from a forbidden novel.
While individual artists craftily navigated (and resisted) the censorship system, it is undeniable that printmaking was a medium for the people. Even at the height of their production from the seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries, prints were produced by a team of artisans in a print shop rather than by an individual artist in the atelier. Instituted by an underdrawing or foundational drawing, ukiyo-e prints underwent a complicated formative process carried out by specialized workers. Underdrawing creators like Hishikawa Moronobu (1618–1694) became prolific artists, emerging from anonymity and stamping their names on works with alluring titles like Two Lovers (ca. 1675–1680). These artists collaborated with a publisher who functioned as an overseer or contractor for the entire production process. From start to finish, creating prints entailed hiring an artist, an engraver, and a printer along with all of their respective assistants.
These experts took production seriously. To start, a skilled lead engraver chose a high-quality woodblock, a small piece of single-petaled white mountain cherry wood void of any warping. Next, by placing the underdrawing atop the block and moistening its inked design, a reverse image of the drawing transferred to the block, which functioned as a stencil for carving the negative space in relief. For the most detailed prints, the engraver supplied the printer with six to ten different woodblock layers. The printer assigned the various newly carved blocks specific colors that transferred perfectly through a method of re-registration. The printer ensured correct registration by making use of raised wooden guides known as kento—a straight-line bar guide and an L-shaped right-angle guide. He then brushed ink onto carved blocks using a thick, flat horse-mane brush. The inked blocks were aligned using the kento and carefully blanketed with damp mulberry paper. After pressing, the printer would pull the paper from the block to reveal perfect, opaque lines or shapes. To avoid lag time, printers usually repeated that initial step, exercising a single woodblock through multiple papers. They would continue making multiple editions of the same block until the initial one dried, which prevented the color from bleeding into the print’s first layer when the next layer was applied. The use of layers added new intricacies to the prints, and as artists moved forward into the Meiji era, they began to experiment with new designs and an expansive color palette.
From Flowers to Warriors and Nostalgic Femininity embody the colorful palette that is emblematic of the Meiji era. The use of synthetic aniline colors attests to a persistent phenomenon of the nineteenth century: Japanese Westernization. The dyes, first synthesized in England, were imported into Japan in the 1860s, and Japanese artists embraced these new materials. Synthetic dye first appeared in ukiyo-e in 1864, and it was a purple hue called rosaniline. Aniline red quickly followed, making the vibrant colors once reserved for paintings more accessible to print artists and their consumers. During this time, printmakers applied these dyes to the depiction of Western subjects to represent their modern attitudes and perspectives. An excellent example of this revolution in printmaking can be found in Yōshū Chikanobu’s Picture of the Japanese Imperial Line exhibited in From Flowers to Warriors. It portrays Emperor Meiji in Western military attire juxtaposed with traditionally dressed emperors of the past. However, not all prints so clearly embraced the modern subject. The works on view in these exhibitions show a longing for the past in their illustration of scenes from earlier periods. Despite their reliance on nostalgia, the bright colors reliably orient us in Japan’s Meiji era.