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Chapter 11 - Woodblock Prints of China and Japan

Dhāra Sutra, the woodblock print of the Pure Immaculate Light, was found in 1966, in a Korean Temple. It was printed in 702 during the Tang Dynasty era      (618-907) and depicts several characters related to Wu Ze Tian , the well known female emperor who established the Zhou Dynasty.

Woodblock Printing in China

Woodblock Printing is a printing technique that utilizes blocks of wood to carve illustrations and calligraphy. Ink or dyes are then applied to these carved images and pressed against paper to transfer the image. The woodblock printing technique is originated in China between the mid 6th and late 9th centuries and was used by Buddhists, in order to spread the teaching of Buddha. Such an specimen printed on hemp paper and dated to 650 to 670 AD, during Tang Dynasty (618–907) has been discovered in an excavation in Xi'an (Chang'an, the capital of Tang Dynasty), Shaanxi, China in 1974. Another specimen dated to the ninth year of Xiantong (868), is a scroll of a Buddhist text, the Diamond Sutra, which was found in 1900 in the Dunhuang caves.

A Ming Dynasty (1368 - 1644) woodblock print which includes descriptions and eight-line poems about the city of Nanjing (under its earlier name of "Jinling") and surrounding region. The book was written by Zhu Zhifan, with drawings by Lu Shoubo, 1624.

Detail from 'One-Hundred Children', a Chinese woodblock print from 1743

It did not take along time for artists to discover the woodblock technique and woodblock art blossomed in various styles by the time of the Song (960-1278) and Yuan (1278-1367) Dynasties. In the production of these traditional Chinese print, drawing, engraving and printing were separate processes performed by different tradesmen and, with some notable exceptions, the creators of traditional prints were viewed as artisans, not artists. This early graphic design reached its zenith during the Ming dynasty (1368-1644), when celebrated painters embarked on collaboration with engravers and printers to create works of stunning artistic quality.
With the innovation of the multiblock colored woodblock print in the 17th century, the qualities of an orginal painting could be reproduced, and books like Scenes from the Huan Cui Hall, Illustrations of the Poetry of the Ten Elders from Little Ying Island, and The Ten Bamboo Letter Papers became important collectors' items among scholars and connoisseurs.

Yuan Dynasty ( 1271- 1368) woodblock print. The simplicity of design and its harmonious composition includes its elegant calligraphy as the integral part of its design.

Woodblock printing in Japan

"The Japanese are poets moved and inspired by the great spectacle of nature and attentive observers of the familiar mysteries of a world of exceeding minuteness. They learn geometry from the spider's web, take decorative motifs from the tracks of a bird across the snow and receive inspiration of curved designs from the ripples of the wind on the water...They believe that there is nothing in the world of creation that is not suited of the high ideals of art."
Samuel Bing, art critic, published in Le Japon Artistque, 1888:

Katsushika Hokusa (1760–1849 ), Rain Dance.

Hokusa was a ukiyo-e style woodblock print artist of the Edo period. In his time, he was Japan's leading expert on Chinese painting. Born in Edo (now Tokyo), Hokusai is best-known as the father of the woodblock print series

The Heian period, and rokudou-e style

During the early Heian period (the early eighth century) the Chinese woodblock prints of the Buddhist scriptures arrived in Japan. Thereafter, the Japanese Buddhist temples began to use simple monochromatic woodblock printing to disseminate their literatures which emphasized the Seishi 生死, the cycle of life and death, rebirth and redeath, of delusion and suffering. This cycle is created by the eternal revolving of rokudou 六道 the Six States of Existence. These were; Jigokudō 地獄道 state of torture and anguish, Gakidō 餓鬼道 state of starving ghosts, Chikushōdō 畜生道 state of livestock and animals, Ashuradō 阿修羅道 state of demons of fury, resentment, and unremitting hostilities, Nindō 人道 state of mankind,and Tendō 天道 state of gods who live in a lasting but not permanent state of enthralling bliss and majesty, but who cannot escape the state of suffering. This revolving in which all beings are entangled is also known as rokushu 六趣, the Six Paths of Reincarnation. It is through Nehan (or Nibbana) 涅槃, enlightenment, that one can getaway from this entanglement.

Kitagawa UTAMARO (1754-1806

A beauty from the tea-house Suminoe in the district of Shiba from a series: "Comparing the Charms of five Beauties". The picture-riddle (in the circular cartouche top right) gives the identity of the beauty on each design. In the second edition the riddle is replaced with a flower design. Published by Omiya Gonkuro c.1795-6.

In 985, the theologian Genshin 源信 (942-1017) in his essay, Oujouyoushuu 往生要集, Fundamentals of Deliverance , described these six states. His description grow to be much admired by Fujiwara landed gentry, and turned into a major conduit for various artists to illustrate each state. Originally, a set of fifteen hanging scrolls at Shoujuuraigouji 聖衆来迎寺, in Shiga prefecture, depicted Genshin's narrative of the rokudou, in which four scrolls illustrated the state of humans and hells, 13th century. By the end of Heian period (in the late 12th century) there was a surge of interest in illustrations of the states of torture and anguish and starving ghosts, which perhaps reflected the tumultuous havocs of that era. The Anguish Scrolls (Jigoku zoushi 地獄草紙, 1180's, Tokyo National Museum and Nara National Museum) and Starving Ghost Scroll, (Gaki zoushi 餓鬼草紙, 1180's, Kyoto Natioanl Museum) are celebrated works of this era. Artists of the Heian period illustrated these six states on emaki 絵巻, handscrolls, which become known as rokudou-e 六道絵. The artistic style of these rokudou-e greatly impacted the woodblock prints.

Okumura Toshinobu (active 1717-50), 'Young Lovers by Mount Fuji'. About 1720
Signature: Yamato-eshi Okumura Toshinobu hitsu,
By the mid-ninth century many of Heian painters decidedly moved away from the Chinese conventional style of landscapes (Kara-e) in which frequently a solitary or few contemplating wise men were depicted in a minuscule scale and were surrounded by colossal landscapes of soaring, rocky mountains and gaping gorges. Heian artists in its place developed a distinctly Japanese-style of landscapes (Yamato-eshi), where instead of lofty mountains they depicted the gently sloping heights of Japanese natural landscapes in which ordinary peasants were busily cultivating their fields, and ordinary people were going about their business of life, or artists depicted the narrative of a Japanese traditional tale.

 Unidentified artist: Illustrated Sutra of The Miracles of Kannon , Kamakura period (1185–1333), dated 1257-- Yamato-e

Another category of this art, called Yamato-e, was based on Japanese poems, describing the intimate relationships between man and the ever-changing nature. Such poems written in elegant calligraphic style were harmoniously arranged as the integral part of the artistic composition. By the by the eleventh century the artists of Yamato-e mastered the woodblock printing and moved towards more sophisticated polychromatic techniques which allowed them to produce their stunningly imaginative woodblock prints.

The Edo Period, and the ukiyo-e style

kugawa Eizan Japan 1787–1867 (Beauty on parade)c.1810 Colour woodblock print. 

Eizan was a ukiyo-e woodblock printmaker. Taught first by his father, a Kano-style painter, then by Suzuki Nanrei and Iwakubo Hokkei; also infuenced by Utamaro and Hokusai. From the early 1800's until he retired about 1830, became the leading designer of bijinga. Depicting actors in his prints as well as erotica.

In the late sixteenth century, a new movement in painting and print called 浮世絵 ukiyo-e emerged. Ukiyo-e artists used the woodblock printing technique, and the classical style of Yamato-e to depict the contemporary vistas of the daily life. The Buddhist concept of ‘ukiyo-e' implies ‘images of the fleeting world where the suffix e, means "images." The philosophical underpinnings of the ukiyo-e style were derived from the idea of life as a collection of ephemeral and illusive experiences of daily hedonistic pleasures, that lead to suffering. However, these experiences at their cores are indicative of the fundamental nature of existence and its divine authenticity. The concept of ukiyo maintains that it is only as a human that one can accomplish enlightenment. This is why Buddhism values the human state above all other states including the state of gods. Incarnation into the human state is being celebrated as an extraordinary phase of the cycle of Seishi to break out the entrapment of being and be liberated into reality through becoming aware of the authenticity of suffering which leads to Nehan-- enlightenment. Despite the fact that the gods are bestowed with a long term, blissful life as a reward for their preceding good deeds, it is just this joy that comprises the crucial impediment for their emancipation, since because of that joy they fail to be attentive of the genuineness of suffering.
"Ukiyo-e Grand Anthology", details, Bijin-ga Prints
The Edo era of Japanese history, began when the Shogunate of Ieyasu Tokugawa relocated the capital from the imperial city of Kyoto to Edo (modern Tokyo) in 1615. It was a period of prosperity and significant artistic achievements. In its early years the Shogunate was opposed by various daimyo, or regional warlords of samurai, who wreaked havoc on the realm by their persistent armed clashes. As a result of these civil wars the art of ukiyo acquired a gloomy and sorrowful tone. Finally, Tokugawa Shogunate successfully gained the upper hand and with its final victory marshaled two and a half centuries of tranquility, which encouraged economic prosperity and wellbeing. Tokyo became for a while the world’s largest city, and it’s cultural life and entertainment industry surged with Kabuki theatres, teahouses, public baths, and the pleasure district of Yoshiwara. The warlords, who were obliged by the shogun to dwell in Edo in every second year, soon turned into government officials, and the new prosperity gave rise to a pleasure seeking middle class, as the Japanese rigid class structure forbade anyone but the aristocracy from acquiring land or marrying into the noble families to possess land. The middle-class then spent their fortunes on art and hedonistic pleasures. They developed a taste for ukiyo-e, paintings and woodcuts that illustrated the features of the fleeting world of pleasure which illustrated scenes of the geisha girls of brothels of Yoshiwara , known as bijin-ga, erotica illustrations known as shun-ga and of famous kabuki dancers. These were dances performed by men masquerading as women, and women as men. Some of dance troupes were exclusively women who offered sexual services for sale. When the authorities prohibited this boys replaced the girls and when they were adult males took over and turned it into a theatrical performance. The interpretation of ephemeral nature of life as conceptualized by ukiyo was stretched to embrace the evanescent pleasures of the courtesan district of Yoshiwara. Ukiyo-e could be stylized depiction of geishas, images of kabuki performers or elegantly illustrated books of poetry.

Woodblock print by Ishikawa Toyonobu of kabuki actors Nakamura Shichisaburō II and Sanogawa Ichimatsu, signed 'Meijōdō Ishikawa Shūha Toyonobu zu', 1740s

The father of ukiyo-e style of woodblock prints was Hishikawa Moronobu (1618-1694). Sometimes past the mid 17th century he convinced his publisher to issue poster like single sheets of his prints without any text. The posters became a vogue and were highly in demand. Moronobu was the first artist that consolidated ukiyo-e designs into a coherent artistic movement. His masterful and artistically graceful compositions set the standards for the masterpieces of ukiyo-e style. Soon other artists began to follow him and a traditional Japanese master-pupil association developed whereby the head pupil often married into his master's family and established a true blood relationship. This led to emergence of various schools of printmaking which each was specialized in a particular subject, with their own stylistic features.

The Urushi-e and Nishiki-e Styles

Ishikawa Toyonobu (Nishimura Shigenobu), Shōki and Girl, c. 1720s. Woodblock print with hand-coloring and lacquer, urushi-e style. The print depicts Shöki the demon slayer.

With an improved quality of paper, and new innovations in printing techniques urushi-e 漆絵, or lacquer-images style was introduced by artists such as Okumura Masanobu, Torii Kiyomasu and Torii Kiyonobu, among many others, in the early eighteenth century. The main characteristics of urushi-e was the compositional effect of a black shining area in the print which was achieved through mixing glue with the printing ink. More importantly, these developments paved the way for the introduction of a more sophisticate polychromatic Nishiki-e 錦絵, or brocade-images. . In 1765, Suzuki Harunobu (1725-1770) was commissioned to produce images for a calendar. The calendar which was published on low quality paper with low-cost pigments proved so popular that soon enabled Harunobu to use high quality colors on a heavier grade paper, He utilized some ten different wood blocks for different colors, which enhanced the quality of print enormously. Many artists such as Kitagawa Utamaro (1753-1806) , Torii Kiyonaga (1752-1815), Utagawa Hiroshige (1797-1858), and Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849) adopted multi-color woodblock technique, and some utilized the Western perspective laws of Dutch copperplate etchings. Nevertheless, Harunobu remained the most popular artist of Nishiki-e style, producing prints of chimerical, beautiful people in awe-inspiring compositions.

The artist Utagawa Toyokuni c.1850 depicts Hachi-no-ki Uri - a dealer for potted plants in the Six Examples of the Street Merchants in the Summer Evenings series; the actor is Nakamura Utaemon IV; publisher: Ibaya Sensaburo

Go to the next chapter; Chapter 12 - Graphic Design in Ceramics


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