Reading 10

  1. The increased wealth of the
  2. merchant class in 17th century
  3. Japan is reflected with great
  4. clarity in the popular art of the
  5. time, the wood-block prints. These
  6. prints, brought to the Western
  7. world by ship captains and traders,
  8. became collectors’ items in Europe
  9. and America. They had a marked
  10. effect on the work of Toulouse-
  11. Lautrec and other artists of his
  12. time in France. Although popular
  13. in Japan, they were despised as
  14. inferior and vulgar in their subject
  15. matter by Japanese connoisseurs
  16. of traditional painting in the
  17. Chinese style. Collectively these
  18. prints are known as ukiyo-e,
  19. “pictures of the floating world,” a
  20. Buddhist term denoting the
  21. impermanence of and fleeting
  22. nature of human pleasures.
  23. The possibility of reproducing
  24. many copies from one set of
  25. blocks enabled the prints to be
  26. sold at a very reasonable price,
  27. and they found a ready market.
  28. The prints have a peculiar charm
  29. and show great technical skill, not
  30. only on the part of the original
  31. artist but also in the work of the
  32. wood-block carver and the printer,
  33. who applied the colors to the
  34. blocks by hand. The blocks
  35. required—one for each color used
  36. in addition to the master block
  37. with the black outlines of the
  38. drawing—range in number from
  39. three or four to as many as fifteen.
  40. In all cases, the registration of
  41. one block printing over another
  42. is perfect. The favorite subjects are
  43. pictures of the pinup type, well-
  44. known actors in their celebrated
  45. roles, geisha entertainers, and
  46. celebrated landscape scenes, such
  47. as “Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji”
  48. by Hokusai. Prints depicting the
  49. various activities of women give
  50. an insight into the process of home
  51. industries such as silk culture and
  52. dyeing.
  53. The variety of colors, the flow of
  54. line, a high standard of taste, and
  55. the natural human appeal of the
  56. subject matter all combine in the
  57. great age of the Japanese color
  58. print in the second half of the
  59. eighteenth century and first half
  60. of the nineteenth to form a body
  61. of popular art almost unrivaled
  62. in the world.
  63. The art of printing from wooden
  64. blocks was, of course, not new in
  65. Tokugawa times. The Chinese had
  66. used it for centuries for
  67. reproducing written characters and
  68. pictures of human and landscape
  69. subjects. The rapid mass
  70. production of Buddhist charms
  71. was made possible in ancient
  72. Japan by the woodblock process.
  73. Characters and a frontispiece of
  74. the gods and saints were combined
  75. in some of the earliest printings of
  76. Buddhist sutras. A complete sutra
  77. was printed from blocks, one block
  78. for each page, in A.D. 868. Even
  79. after the introduction of movable
  80. type in China about the year 1030
  81. (four centuries before the first
  82. Gutenberg Bible was printed in
  83. Germany), the method of using a
  84. wood block for an entire page was
  85. continued, especially in the
  86. printing of sacred books.
  87. Many examples exist of Chinese
  88. landscape prints with very fine
  89. lines in black and white. What was
  90. distinctive of the great age of
  91. Japanese wood-blocks was the
  92. masterly use of color, subtle
  93. effects being obtained by the
  94. mixing of colors and by gradation
  95. and the wiping away of color
  96. already applied. Groups of
  97. subscribers would combine to
  98. commission sets of New Year
  99. greeting cards, and these would
  100. often incorporate elaborate effects
  101. obtained by sprinklings of gold,
  102. silver and mica dust.
  103. No artist excelled as much as
  104. Hokusai as a colorful personality,
  105. and anecdotes from his life are
  106. numerous. Summoned to an artist
  107. competition before the Shogun
  108. Ienari, Hokusai asked for a paper
  109. screen door, laid it down, and
  110. painted a broad, waving stripe of
  111. blue upon it. He then produced a
  112. cock, dipped its feet in scarlet
  113. color, and made it walk down the
  114. blue band. That was his picture—
  115. the title, “Maple Leaves Floating
  116. Down the Tatsuta River.”
  117. Hokusai had risen by constant
  118. struggle from a life of poverty, but
  119. by the end he was in great
  120. demand. He was chosen to
  121. illustrate the Life of the Hundred
  122. Heroes, one of the works of the
  123. famous author Bakin. The two fell
  124. out; but when the matter came to
  125. the ears of the publisher, he
  126. dispensed with Bakin and found
  127. another author to finish the text
  128. rather than lose Hokusai.

Morton, W. Scott and Olenik, J. Kenneth. Japan: Its History and Culture. New York: McGraw Hill, 1970. 131–132.