The advent of woodblock printing in Japan dates back to the eighth century and reached its peak during the country’s Edo period, from the seventeenth century to the end of the nineteenth century.
This meticulous art form – in which an artist designs an image, a sculptor cuts the design out of a block of wood and a printer transfers the image from wood to paper – has become an essential aspect of Japanese art and has long inspired artists around the world.
A new volume published by Taschen – one of the German publisher’s XXL editions – entitled Japanese Woodblock Prints – offers a comprehensive overview of 200 landmark woodblock images and the prolific artists who created them between 1680 and 1938.
During these years, woodblock printing has become more widely available, with images being reproduced both in books and as one-off prints in multiple editions, and the artwork being affordable, widely distributed and entertaining. Ukiyo-e images – a kind of printing and painting whose name means “images of the floating world” – often depicted scenes of society and social life in Edo (now Tokyo), where people went to Kabuki theatre, watched dancing and met geishas. The printing techniques, colour palettes, artistic style and distinctive subjects strongly influenced European painters of the 1800s – who fall under the generic term of Japonism – such as Manet, Degas and Van Gogh. “I envy the Japanese for the enormous clarity that permeates their work … they draw a figure with a few well-chosen lines as if it were as easy as buttoning your vest,” the latter artist once said.
The 200 prints featured in Japanese Woodblock Prints were compiled by Andreas Marks, and are revealed chronologically, tracing the ups and downs of print popularity. The artists featured are still among the most famous names in Japan: Hokusai, of the Great Wave, Hiroshige, famous for its magnificent woodcuts depicting daily life in the country, and Moronobu, who is the founder of ukiyo-e in Edo, among others.
Similarly, the subjects of the prints range from the sensual to the sublime and subversive: beautiful landscapes filled with sakura can turn into a dreamlike landscape full of skeletons (with characters and snarling scenes that make viewing sometimes disturbing); lovers can be caught in a tender embrace, or hide in a nearby mirror to cast an illicit glance. Eroticism was a popular sub-section of ukiyo-e prints, and was often shared among couples and friends as a source of entertainment and pleasure. Hokusai, who is remembered for his landscapes but was also prolific in shunga (Japanese term for erotic art), created one of the most famous examples of erotic tentacles in art history: The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife, 1814, depicts a romantic rendezvous between a woman and two octopuses.
In Japanese Woodblock Prints, the fascinating story behind 200 of the most enduring prints is brought into the limelight for a captivating effect.
A phenomenon without equivalent in the Western Europe, the Japanese print mixes grandiose landscapes, erotic scenes to make you blush, demons and other creatures from elsewhere that torment the living, sumo wrestlers, kabuki actors and courtesans as famous as rock stars. This XXL-format book lifts the veil on a much appreciated but often misunderstood art, recounting the figures and backstage of 200 of the most exceptional prints made between 1680 and 1938. Bringing together the finest prints from museums and private collections around the world, it presents the work of 89 artists through 17 folding pages..Andreas MarksRelié, 29 x 39,5 cm, 5,80 kg, 622 pages