Japanese woodblock printing is a technique that’s been used for centuries. Reaching its height of popularity in the 1600s, it’s an age-old book printing method that utilises water-based inks – differing from western oil-based applications – that sees an intricate, detailed piece of craftwork blending vivid colours with glazes, text and imagery.
Japanese Woodblock Prints is a new publication from Taschen that turns its focus to the history of the art form. Presenting 200 Japanese woodblock prints created between 1680-1938 – ordered chronologically to trace its impactful development – the mammoth 600-page book features 17 fold-outs, seven chapters and 89 artists, ranging from the world-renowned to the smaller and perhaps unfamiliar. Three years in the making, Andreas Marks – editor of the publication and PhD graduate in Japanese studies, plus ex-director and chief curator of the Clark Centre for Japanese Art in Handford, California – describes the process of the book as one that looks at “redrawing the history” of Japanese woodblock prints from the very beginning, compiled and displayed with utmost honesty. “We agreed to try to reproduce as many prints as possible in real size so that the reader gets the sense of how they actually look,” he says, “since the images in books are usually following an overarching design, obscuring the reality.”
This realistic representation is achieved through these fold-outs, a “rare” element that’s not often found within books on Japanese prints, as well as considered calculations on the limit of how many pieces can actually be featured throughout. Although reaching 600 pages, the catalogue was capped at 200 prints. “I began by compiling a list of artists in chronological order, first the better known and then I integrated the lesser ones,” explains Andreas. “To accurately retell history, the book had to offer a balance and not just showcase the artists that happen to be popular today.” This includes a limitation of artists such as Katsushika Hokusai with 10 prints, Utagawa Hiroshige with nine and Kitagawa Utamaro with seven. “Since [Utagawa] Kunisada was historically the most successful artist who was active much longer than any other artist, I bumped him up to 13,” says Andreas. He recounts these limitations as problematic, due to the nature of the artwork being “outstanding” and the fact that the lesser-known would in some cases only receive one artwork feature. “In a nutshell, there were some moments where I regretted the self-imposed limit of 200.”
Aimed at Japanese print fanatics as well as those who are unfamiliar with the medium, Andreas made sure to include these “usual suspects” – such as Hokusai’s Great Wave and Red Fuji, Hiroshige’s Evening Shower over Ōhashi Bridge, Utamaro’s Abalone Divers as well as “actors by Sharaku, beauties by Hunobu, warriors by Kuniyoshi.” These are equally balanced with the less known artworks. “One of my goals was to surprise readers through the image selection so that it will never be boring, but is a roller coast of ‘ah’ moments and a feast for your eyes from the beginning to end.” A further goal was to highlight the development of the medium in terms of production. “The chronological order shows the overarching changes in printing techniques, such as the use of colour palette and stylistic developments,” Andreas continues. “This can be from simple black and white to multi-colour with special features like embossing and burnishing.”
Upon collating the imagery, Andreas sourced his prints from 43 public and private collections from across the globe. A refreshing outcome, it’s one that goes against the majority of books in this vein that tend to feature a “survey” of Japanese prints based solely on a single collection. “It was an enormous work of labour to compile and secure all image rights,” he says. As a museum curator himself, who oversees one of the most important print collections in the world, he explains how he often comes across books that display colours that are completely inaccurate to its original. “But in this case, Taschen worked very hard to ensure accurate colours,” he says. “Accurate colours and the fact that so many prints are reproduced in real size (which is again usually not done at all) give the readers the opportunity to enjoy the prints as if they would have the real work sitting in front of them.” This publication is a rare and insightful glance at privately-owned art pieces that rarely make it out into the public realm, and also a chance to relish in the history of Japanese woodblock printing.
Japanese Woodblock Prints is available at Taschen.
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