Questions and Answers about Japanese Woodblock Prints
WHAT ARE UKIYO-E?
HOW ARE WOODBLOCK PRINTS MADE?
WHAT SIZES ARE JAPANESE PRINTS?
WHAT IS THE MARKET LIKE FOR JAPANESE PRINTS?
HOW DO I LOOK AFTER JAPANESE PRINTS?
HOW CAN I FIND OUT MORE ABOUT JAPANESE PRINTS?
HOW CAN I BE SURE THAT A PRINT IS GENUINE?
HOW DO I FIND A PARTICULAR PRINT?
WHAT ARE UKIYO-E? top
Ukiyo-e means literally: "pictures of the floating world." The floating world is maybe best described by the seventeenth century writer Asai Ryoi:
"... Living only for the moment, turning our full attention to the pleasures of the moon, the snow, the cherry blossoms and the maple leaves; singing songs, drinking wine, diverting ourselves in just floating, floating; ... refusing to be disheartened, like a gourd floating along with the river current: this is what we call the floating world..."
The prints were produced for townspeople, primarily the growing populations of Tokyo and Kyoto (Tokyo was the largest city in the world even in the nineteenth century). Initially monochrome depictions of prostitutes and actors, the genre quickly expanded to include multi coloured prints of three or more panels, embossed, burnished, sprinkled with mica and printed in metallic inks. Prints became an inextricable part of Japanese life, sometimes politically motivated, stirring images of warriors or else images devoted to the pleasure of the flesh and of the theatre.
Ukiyo-e reached its peak of importance in the still feudal Edo period culminating in the mid-nineteenth century. Artists such as Kuniyoshi, Toyokuni, Hiroshige and others would become famous and influential in Europe and elsewhere. In 1868, with the restoration of monarchy and trade deals with Holland and the United States, new forms of reproduction such as photography and lithography started to erode the importance of woodblocks until by the close of the century the art form had all but died out.
HOW ARE WOODBLOCK PRINTS MADE? top
The artist would start by producing a master drawing in ink on thin washi paper. Even this process was collaborative in as much as the artist worked closely with a publisher who commissioned the work. Many works were commissioned as series, such as the famous 100 Poets Compared, which had the three major artists of the day submitting designs.
The artist's assistant would create a tracing of the original and this was glued face down to a block of wood, then using a sharp chisel, the carver would carve away all of the white paper. Looking at a fine print of the period, it remains extraordinary that the fine lines of hair, several per millimeter, could be created this way.
The block was then inked, and a black copy taken; these black copies were in turn used in the same way to create the different colours required, one block for each colour. The blocks were then inked with pigment in rice glue and printed, in perfect register, one after the other until the final, multi-colour print was created.
WHAT SIZES ARE JAPANESE PRINTS? top
Traditional Japanese paper is made in a size called o-bosho, roughly 53 x 39 cm. The most common form of woodblock print is an oban, 26.5 x 39 cm which is a half sheet of the original piece. The next most common size is the chuban, 19.5 x 26 cm which is half an oban sheet.
These sizes were used as landscape, yoko-e or more commonly tate-e, vertically. There were combinations of these sheets: two combined to form diptychs, three to form triptychs and so on up to five (pentaptych) or more. It is rare to find prints that fall outside of these standard sizes.
WHAT IS THE MARKET LIKE FOR JAPANESE PRINTS? top
Woodblock prints have been collected since they were first made. Many were collected into albums and these complete albums sometimes come onto the market with the prints still stitched in. More commonly prints are sold individually. At the end of the nineteenth century, the value of Japanese prints had fallen so far that they were used as packing for the export of manufactured goods like ceramics to Europe and America.
It was because of this that the European craze for collecting began, stimulated in part by the enthusiasm of influential artists of the day, notably Van Gogh who made copies of Hiroshige prints on canvas. Connoisseurs quickly identified the best prints and values soared as wealthy collectors and dealers bought up the dwindling supplies of good quality work and academic books were published on the history and identification of the work.
The market has remained relatively stable since the 1990’s. Prints can fetch as much as $313,000, paid for an Utamaro in 2002. There remains however a good trade in museum quality works by famous artists, work which is not only beautiful to collect and display but which also retains its value and on the whole appreciates over time.
HOW DO I LOOK AFTER JAPANESE PRINTS? top
Toshidama Gallery supplies prints already mounted on archive board with museum standard archive hinges. We also use clear archive mylar sleeves for further protection. It is essential to use museum glass or U.V glass when framing and to keep the prints out of strong direct sunlight. This is true of any work of art. A wide variety of smart archive boxes are available to store a collection if you don't wish to display them.
HOW CAN I FIND OUT MORE ABOUT JAPANESE PRINTS? top
You can visit our blog which contains articles relating to the current show and past shows, or go to the links page where we have listed some online resources. There are many very good books available from Amazon, some of which we recommend in exhibition notes. The best way is to do your own research about the artist or genre which most appeals to you. The internet is a fine resource for a great deal of information. If you need some direction on a specific subject, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org and we will be happy to point you in the right direction.
HOW CAN I BE SURE THAT A PRINT IS GENUINE? top
Only buy prints from trusted sources and only purchase a print if you can return it to the vendor should it turn out to be wrong. On the whole, later printings can be quite easy to spot and in fact there is not a great deal of forgery in the market. The most common problem, particularly with an artist such as Hiroshige, is later printings or prints made from re-cut blocks. These are more tricky to identify. Many do have value but nothing like that of an original or early edition.
HOW DO I FIND A PARTICULAR PRINT? top
We maintain a searchable archive of past shows, which is a good starting point. Otherwise Toshidama Gallery is happy to source prints for you if there is a particular piece that you are after. E-mail us to enquire about our Print-finder Service.