Japanese Edo-Period Woodblock Prints

Japanese Edo-period was a harshly controlled feudal society governed for over 250 years running from 1603 to 1867. The Edo period was also a period that provided an ideal environment for the development of the art in a commercial form.During this period, political, economic and religious influence on Japan was limited. Only China and the Dutch East India Company had the right to visit Japan during this period. The period ended in 1867 with the restoration of the Imperial rule by the 15th and last shogun Tokugawa Yoshinobu. The Edo period is also known as the beginning of the early modern period of Japan.

The development during the Edo period included urbanization, increased shipping of commodities, the expansion of domestic and foreign commerce, and a diffusion of trade and handicraft industries. By the mid-eighteenth century, Edo had a population of more than 1 million people. Edo was the center for the supply of food and essential urban consumer goods. The construction trades flourished, along with banking facilities and merchant associations.

Buddhism and Shinto were both still important in the Edo period. Buddhism combined with neo-Confucianism, provided standards of social behavior. Although not as powerful politically as it had been in the past, Buddhism was espoused by the upper classes around 1640. Shinto provided spiritual support to the political order and was an important tie between the individual and the community. Shinto also helped preserve a sense of national identity.

By the end of the seventeenth century, three distinct modes f creative expression flourished. After a devastating fire in 1657, an irreverent expression surfaced called woodblock printing of the “floating world” or ukiyo-e. Woodblock prints are the most widely known and admired arts of the Edo period.Woodblock prints were originally used in the eighth century in Japan for Buddhist scriptures. A designer, by the name of Tawaraya Sotatsu, used wood stamps to print designs on paper and silk. Other types of woodblock prints are made by the colors used the geographical location of the scenes, the size, and the subject matter.

In 1765, new technology made it possible to produce single sheet prints in various ranges of colors. Printmakers worked in monochrome, printed colors by hand, and then gradually came to used polychrome. Woodblock prints of the Edo period showed the seductive courtesans and kabuki actors. Their subject matter included famous romantic vistas and eventually included dramatic historical events. Each print required the collaboration of four experts: the designer, the engraver, the printer, and the publisher. The artist who drew the prints decided the color scheme of each print. The publisher usually issues a print as a commercial venture.

The artist first sketched an under-drawing that need to be approved for censorship. When approval had been obtained, the artist had to transform the drawing into a form that could function as the basis for the woodcarving. This is done by placing a sheet of thin, strong called minogami on the under-drawing. The paper constitutes an important part of the print and it is always sized. There are two main kinds of paper used for printing besides minogami: hosho and torinoko (hodomura). Hosho has rough edges called mimi-tsuki that comes from Otaki in Fukui Prefecture. Hosho is made from the bark of kozo (paper mulberry). The darker inside of the bark remains in the finished paper.The artist would then use black ink to trace the outlines of the sketch on the minogami. Next, the work is passed on to the carver who would paste the minogami paper, face down, on a dried block of cherry or pear wood and reversing the image of the block. The paper was gently rubbed, removing most of the fibers and leaving the image clearly visible on the wood. The block would be carefully carved, leaving the outlines of the drawing in relief. Different instruments were used for detail that needs to be carved. To make the colors in the final print, the ink was placed on the block. Then, a paper was placed on the block and, using a tool called baren, the printer would scrub the entire image, including the guide marks thus making the print. The baren is the soul of the printer.The baren contains a circular mat or coil of cord made of bamboo-sheath. After the carving process is finished, the color blocks and the key block are handed over to the printer who had prepared the sheets of printing paper by moistening them. The printing process would be carried out in the same order as the carving. First, the key block would be placed on the printing stand and painted with black ink. Then, a sheet of printing paper was placed on upon the block in alignment with the guide marks. Finally, the printer used the baren to rub the paper, creating an impression of the block. After followed the same procedure for the color blocks, resulting in the finished print.

The publishers of woodblock printings saw an opportunity to profit from printings of pre-modern stars. One important source for the woodblock prints was the life in the Yoshiwara quarter. In Edo, Yoshiwara quarter was a major pleasure center where teahouses and all the Geishas, courtesans and musicians were thriving. Landscape prints became an independent genre and often produced in sets of travelogue. Katsushika Hokusai was one of the main artists who developed the last achievement of woodblock print. Hokusai is well known for his landscape series, such as “Under The Wave at Kanagawa”. This landscape shows a giant wave engulfing fishing boats and Mount Fuji is the background detail. The artist’s skill and creativity often yielded designs of utmost sophistication, as well as imaginative.At the end of the Edo period, the Japanese society went through many changes. The woodblock prints began to disappear. Woodblock prints represent one of the most important achievements of the Edo period. There was no finer graphic art ever produced in the woodblock medium anywhere in the world.

Works Cited

Kleiner, Fred S., and Christin J. Mamiya. Gardners Art Through the Ages. 12th ed. Vol. 2. Belmont: Wadsworth/Thomson, 2010. Print.

Newland, Amy Reigle., and Julie Nelson. Davis. The Hotei Encyclopedia of Japanese Woodblock Prints. Amsterdam: Hotei, 2005. Print.

Parker, Deborah. “New Perspectives on Japanese Prints.” EBSCOhost. Virginia Quarterly Review, Spring 2004. Web. 9 Mar. 2010.

“Woodblock Prints in the Ukiyo-e Style | Thematic Essay | Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History | The Metropolitan Museum of Art.” The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York: Metmuseum.org. 2000. Web. 09 Mar. 2010. <http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/ukiy/hd_ukiy.htm&gt;.


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