JAPANESE WOODBLOCK PRINTS
One of the most popular forms of oriental art, the woodblock print offers a fascinating glimpse into the life and times of 19th-century Japan.
Japanese woodblock prints were little known in Europe until the second half of the 19th century. Only after they were admired and popularized by some of the Impressionist and
Post Impressionist painters, especially in France, did they gain a wider audience.
Japanese woodblock prints are known as Ukiyo-e, meaning 'Images of the Floating World' - a charming description of the flower and insect scenes, landscapes and seascapes, and the actors, courtesans and great beauties of the day which form the most common subjects of these prints.
The tradition of printing from intricately carved woodblocks dates back well over 1000 years, when the texts of early books were printed in this way. And by the
mid-18th century, when wider literacy encouraged greater demand for illustrated books, Japanese skill in this field was unrivalled anywhere.
The woodblock print was created by team effort. A publisher headed the team, chose the subject matter, employed the artist and blockcutters, raised the finance and finally sold the prints. The artist, though, first had to decide on the print's dimensions. These were laid down by convention so that each print size and shape was relatively standardized and denoted by a name. Among the most common were the oban, aiban, chuban, hashira-e and kakemono-e. In addition, tate-e referred to a vertical print, while yoko-e referred to a horizontal one. All were designed to be hung on the wooden pillars within Japanese houses.
MAKING THE WOODBLOCK
Having chosen a size, the artist made a brush drawing on very thin paper. This was then pasted face down on a block of well-seasoned cherrywood, parallel to the grain. The engraver then cut away the wood around the lines, leaving these in high relief. Ink was applied to the raised lines and first proofs were taken by pressing dampened paper on to the woodblock, using a bamboo sheath known as a baren. Corrections were made to the block after studying the first proofs, and further blocks were cut - one for each colour.
The earliest prints were plain black. Later, pink or green were added. But by the early 19th century a wide spectrum of colours was being used and original vegetable dyes were supplemented with new bright colours and ingredients such as brass dust to give a
gold sprinkled effect. Sometimes, parts of the print were embossed to add further detail.
The major differences between Japanese and European woodblock prints lie in the type of paper used - traditionally a mix of fibres from bamboo and mulberry bark - and the fact that no mechanical press was used in Japan. Hand pressure, via the baren, lent the prints a greater subtlety of colour, tone and line than any western press could achieve.
Most prints were not seen as works of art. They were everyday items, often depicting 'stars' of the day, much like today's posters. As fashions changed, or idols came and went, the prints were discarded and replaced.
Prints of courtesans were popular in their day and are sought after by collectors. Courtesans were well-versed in social etiquette as well as the art of love. These prints serve as a record of changing fashions; this one has fine details on the
kimono - a plus point for collectors.
Japanese prints are not difficult to find. They were produced in large quantities and have been collected in the West for over a century. Certain shops specialize in them and some large department stores even have an oriental section where they can be bought. Japanese prints
also come up for sale at auction. Prices vary widely - from next to nothing for an unexciting print in poor condition, to huge sums
for an old, rare item in mint condition.
THE IMPORTANCE OF CONDITION
Condition is extremely important in determining the price. It refers not only to the paper hearing the image but to the sharpness of the print.
As a block was used more and more, the printed lines became more indistinct until finally
the woodblock wore out and had to be scrapped. If a print was especially popular, another block may have been cut and a new print-run begun. The clarity of line and whether the print is from an original or later block affect the value of the print.
Sometimes another series was published long after the first issue of a print, and these copies can be very difficult to identify.
Occasionally, obvious discrepancies occur the paper or colours, for example, may not correspond to the first run. However, these reference points need to be known in advance and even then caution is needed. Assessment made on colour, for instance, poses its own problems. Vegetable dyes fade when exposed to strong sunlight, as do later chemical dyes. Although faded prints have a delicate charm of their own, they may be a far cry from the strong, vibrant colours laid down originally.
Avoid prints that have been trimmed - they usually had a plain margin - or those that have been pasted on a back board, as this reduces their value. Look, also, for holes. Old prints are very tasty to worms and those that have been chewed are less valuable.