Woodblock prints are an integral part of Japanese art and culture in the centuries gone past. In many ways, the techniques of craft and reproduction that were pioneered and mastered by the Japanese were more advanced than what their European contemporaries were able to achieve. Although woodblock prints were in circulation as early as the eighth century A.D., it was only since the 17th century that they reached their peak creative expression. Woodblock prints spanning the entire millennia have served a crucial cultural purpose in Japan, as they were second only to the oral tradition in propagating folklore, history and customs of the people. Not only were the woodblock prints a source of entertainment and enchantment, they were also vital to the propagation of Buddhist philosophy and art. (Priest, 1959) As a consequence, the evolution of Zen Buddhism in Japan is neatly documented in this medium of art. The rest of this essay will analyze two Japanese woodblock prints – taken one each from The Seattle Museum of Asian Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art respectively – and study their similarities and differences in the backdrop of the evolution of the technique.
The two woodblock prints chosen for this essay are – Crow and Heron (Young Lovers Walking Under an Umbrella in a Snowstorm, ca. 1769) and Two Ladies Looking Through a Telescope (Hokusai, 19th century) – from the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Seattle Museum of Asian Art respectively. The Crow and Heron was created by Suzuki Harunobu and is made of woodcut print on paper. This print carries many typical characteristics of the art and cultural sensibilities of the period. Firstly, chivalry being a cherished virtue in high Japanese society, the man is shown to hold the umbrella for his lover. The demureness and shyness of the lady is complemented by the glitter and passion in the eyes of her beloved. The robes worn by the lovers further accentuate this complementariness. The dark brown shades of the man’s robes align and merge with the soft white robe of the lady. The tresses and folding of their robes form a unified pattern. (Meech, 1982)
Japanese woodblock prints reveal much information about the social structures and cultural norms of corresponding eras. They also show the signature styles of various artists. The Crow and Heron print shows the
“rise of the wealthy chonin and their interest in elegant clothes, pleasurable pastimes, and the arts, especially woodblock prints. Harunobu depicted beautiful women being slender and graceful. He did not individualize his figures, but presented them as idealized images without unique features”. (http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/works-of-art/JP2453, 2006)
It is interesting to note that the flourishing of woodprint art during the Edo period is largely due to the patronage of the aristocratic class. Indeed, the “pleasure quarters and the sophisticated entertainments they offered exerted an enormous impact on the culture of the Edo period.” (http://www.metmuseum.org, 2003) In this light, it is a paradox that the Buddhist message of austerity and detachment was propagated in equal measure through the art form. For instance, one prominent feature of this Buddhist ethos is that of ukiyo, which stands for the transitory nature of life. Both the works in discussion exhibit this quality in terms of their impressions. Hence, the revelry of Japanese high society went hand in hand with the simplicity of Buddhist philosophy in shaping the rules and aesthetics of woodprint art. This contra-direction is exemplified in the upturning of the meaning of ukiyo from ‘transitory’ to that of ‘joie de vivre’. This
“hedonistic culture that glorified life in the ‘floating world’ was particularly well expressed in the production of woodblock prints, which made available to anyone with a bit of extra cash captivating images of seductive courtesans, exciting kabuki actors, and famous romantic vistas. For the first time, artists were inspired by and responded to the interests and preferences of the general public”. (http://www.metmuseum.org, 2004)
The print Two Ladies Looking Through a Telescope is a beautiful work from the woodblock tradition. Created by artist Hokusai during the 19th century, it has similarities to the Two Lovers painting, in that the feminine is portrayed as sensuous, delicate and demure. The fine attention given to the robes, accessories and other ornamentation is a treat to the eyes. The two women in the painting are most likely courtesans or entertainers living in their palatial abode. The use of the Telescope and its tilt downwards suggests their vantage position – both physically and socio-economically. The significance of the Telescope is that it is imported equipment from Western Europe. It indicates the cultural and commercial exchange that began to consolidate during the 19th century. It is only apt that this work of art is featured under ‘Japan Envisions the West’ gallery in the Settle Art Museum.
Again, what is common between the two works in discussion, as well as the larger body of woodblock prints is their utility as historical documents, depicting the lifestyles, social structures and dressing styles of various generations of Japanese. They also showcase the unique aspects of Japanese art, particularly with respect to the woodprint production technique, which was quite advanced compared to the evolvement of art production techniques in Europe.
Department of Asian Art. “Woodblock Prints in the Ukiyo-e Style”. InHeilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/ukiy/hd_ukiy.htm (October 2003)
Department of Asian Art. “Art of the Pleasure Quarters and the Ukiyo-e Style”. In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/plea/hd_plea.htm (October 2004)
Meech, Julia. “Early Collections of Japanese Prints and The Metropolitan Museum of Art.” Metropolitan Museum Journal, Vol. 17 (1982).
Priest, Alan. “An Aristocracy of Robes.” Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, New ser., v. 18, no. 4 (December, 1959)
“Suzuki Harunobu: Crow and Heron, or Young Lovers Walking Together under an Umbrella in a Snowstorm (JP2453). In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000 – http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/works-of-art/JP2453 (October 2006)