Collecting guide: Japanese woodblock prints

Learn more about the landscapes, courtesans, actors, warriors and monsters depicted in ukiyo-e, and why Utamaro, Hokusai and Hiroshige belong in the pantheon of all-time great artists

Edo and a new wave in Japanese art

The year 1600 was a momentous one for Japan. It was then that Tokugawa Ieyasu seized power, unifying the country after years of conflict among rival warlords.

As shogun, he named Edo (modern-day Tokyo) as his seat of government, transforming the provincial backwater into a showcase for the nation’s new dawn.

By the mid-18th century, Edo was the largest city on Earth, with a population of one million. The Tokugawa dynasty would rule until 1868, and the era became known as the Edo period.

It was a time of peace and prosperity, and the arts flourished. Particularly splendid were the ukiyo-e (‘woodblock prints’) — works known for their unusual viewpoints, abrupt cropping, exquisite stylisation, and patches of vivid, unshaded colour.

According to Christie’s Japanese Art specialists, Kitagawa Utamaro (1753-1806), Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849) and Utagawa Hiroshige (1797-1858) belong in the pantheon of all-time great artists.

In 2017, Hokusai’s In the Well of the Great Wave off Kanagawa (aka The Great Wave) set a new auction record for a Japanese woodblock print, fetching $943,500 at Christie’s in New York.

In black and white: sumizuri-e

Japanese woodblock printing dates back to the 8th century, when it was used to reproduce texts, especially Buddhist scriptures. It wasn’t until the early 1500s that books were printed with illustrations, which in turn paved the way for standalone images.

Initial images were black-and-white sumizuri-e prints made with black ink. An artist’s drawing would be transferred from paper to a cherry-wood block, which was carved and then inked, before blank sheets of paper were laid on top.

Hishikawa Moronobu (1618-1694) was an acknowledged master, best known for his quasi-calligraphic line.

The introduction of colour: nishiki-e

Printing in more than one colour was tricky: it wasn’t until the 1740s that green and pink were tentatively introduced. A huge breakthrough came in 1765, when Suzuki Harunobu (1724-1770) mastered a process that accommodated an array of colours.

The resulting prints were called nishiki-e  (‘brocade pictures’). They were created by making a set of woodblocks, starting with the ‘key-block’ which has the outline fully carved in relief. The key-block was then printed, and the resulting proofs used to then make additional woodblocks, one for each area of colour. Each colour woodblock would then be printed in turn, using a registration system that would allow careful alignment of each block.

When we think of Japanese prints today, it tends to be the glorious, full-colour examples made after Harunobu that we have in mind.

By the 19th century, artists were producing remarkably subtle effects such as the shifting tones of Hiroshige’s outstanding sunsets and expanses of water.

The pursuit of pleasure: courtesans and kabuki actors

The subject matter of ukiyo-e also evolved over the period.

To show their loyalty to the shogun, feudal lords were required to spend one year in Edo for every year they devoted to their family domains outside. They arrived in Edo with a retinue of samurai and other attendants, creating a large itinerant community.

To entertain them, an official pleasure district, the Yoshiwara, was created. Its restaurants, teahouses, theatres and brothels proved equally popular with Edo’s new merchant class and turned its courtesans and kabuki actors into stars.

Kitagawa Utamaro (1754-1806), The Courtesans Hanaogi and Takikawa of the Ogiya (Ogiya uchi Hanagi Takikawa)

There was a market for pictures of these early celebrities, and woodblock prints — many being produced in larger and larger numbers at lower costs — were the ideal way to reach it. It seems that in the early 19th century each print cost roughly the same as a bowl of noodles.

The literal translation of ukiyo-e is ‘pictures of the floating world’, a reference to the philosophy of living in the moment and enjoying transient pleasures of the sort on offer in the Yoshiwara.

Among the leading artists of this time was Utamaro, who is renowned for his sensuous depictions of sumptuously dressed women. In 2016, his Deeply Hidden Love fetched €745,800 at a French auction house sale in association with Christie’s — the second-highest price ever paid for a Japanese print at auction.

The shift to landscapes

In the 19th century, ukiyo-e artists shifted their focus to landscapes — in part, due to an increase in travel made possible by five major new highways that connected Edo with the rest of the country.

The two greatest landscape artists were Hiroshige and Hokusai. In his famous series, ‘Fifty-Three Stations of the Tokaido’, Hiroshige captured sites and scenes along the 300-mile highway to Kyoto.

For his monumental series, ‘Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji’, meanwhile, Hokusai focused on the sacred mountain, Mount Fuji, visible from that highway, depicting it from different viewpoints in different seasons. The Great Wave was one of these.

Warriors and other Japanese heroes

The other big subject for 19th-century ukiyo-e artists was warriors. Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1798-1861) illustrated the exploits of legendary Japanese and Chinese heroes, revelling in fantastical tales of their battles with killer carp, malignant giant toads, and octopuses taller than buildings. He brought drama, dynamism and imagination to the medium — and proved hugely popular.

Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1797-1861), Mitsukuni Defying the Skeleton Spectre Conjured up by Princess Takiyasha

The influence of ukiyo-e on Western artists

In foreign policy, the Edo period was marked by isolationism. In fact, Japan all but abandoned trade with other nations, as well as banning travel in and out of the country.

When the final Tokugawa shogun was ousted in 1868, however, the situation changed. As Japan opened its borders, ukiyo-e prints began to be exported to the West.

As they started appearing in Europe and the United States in large numbers, artists including Van Gogh, Monet, Degas, Whistler and Toulouse-Lautrec were captivated by them.

The market for ukiyo-e today

More recently, the market for ukiyo-e has strengthened since around 2013.

Major exhibitions, such as Hokusai: Beyond the Great Wave at the British Museum in 2017, have played their part in this re-evaluation: following the Kuniyoshi exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts in 2009, the record for his prints at auction has been broken twice, first with Miyamoto no Musashi Attacking the Giant Whale in 2018. Kyōsai: The Israel Goldman Collection at the Royal Academy of Arts in 2022 focused on another, overlooked master painter of period. 

Hokusai is still the biggest name internationally, thanks to the ubiquity of images such as The Great Wave and Red Fuji. In 2019, two years after the former set a new world record, a print of Red Fuji sold for £507,000 at Christie’s in New York.

The wonderful thing about ukiyo-e woodblocks is that there truly is something for everyone. After all, the golden age of ukiyo-e spanned three centuries and included many different artists working in different genres.

For those entering the market, Hiroshige tends to be popular, particularly his visions of nature and landscape. While popular designs in good condition can fetch high prices, it is possible to purchase good Hiroshige prints for around £5,000.

Broadly speaking, the more eminent the artist, the pricier the work. But other factors influence price, too: an early impression of a print is superior to a later one, for instance, as woodblocks became worn after repeated use. Condition is also important, as woodblock prints an be affected by fading, wormholes, tears and restoration, which can all greatly impact the value of a print.

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Framing and care for your ukiyo-e

Because of the vegetable-based pigments used, Japanese prints are light-sensitive and colours can fade. Collectors are therefore advised to frame them behind UV-filtering glass on an acid-free mount and hang them in a dimly lit space, out of direct sunlight.

The alternative is to keep them unframed in archive boxes, between sheets of Japanese hosho paper, to be brought out and enjoyed as the mood takes you. If stored well, Japanese prints are incredibly durable, and should provide pleasure for many generations to come.

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