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  featured articles Modern To Post Modernity | Overshadowed Era | Urbanization  
  Urbanization and the Woodblock Print in Edo Period Japan
by Jeff Matt

Occasionally something taken for granted as ordinary by its maker is viewed by another who is removed culturally, socially or chronologically from the work’s original production. Sometimes, upon being experienced from a new perspective, a mundane object achieves a transcendence. One of the richest examples of a commonplace object achieving a deservedly elevated new station in the world is the print work of Edo Period Japan (1600- 1868).

Considered to be vernacular art in Japan, Edo period prints were discovered by westerners in the nineteenth century. Soon after this discovery, the styles of the Japanese print began to influence avant-garde western art as seen in the works of Gauguin, Monet and Van Gogh, to name a only a few. Today, not many would mistake the style of Japanese prints. Examples can be seen in many facets of American pop culture: in tattooing, surf culture, the fine arts, and for better or worse, in advertising.

One of the most enduring and recognizable images in the graphic arts of any culture is Hiroshige’s famous composition "Under the Wave Off Kanagawa (The Great Wave)" from his series of prints entitled, “Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji” (see accompanying image). The profound influence of Japanese woodblock printing on western imagery might seem surprising when it is revealed that these prints were a type of popular art intended for fairly large distribution; an art form which grew out of the red light district of proto Tokyo and was, in essence, the dirty comic book of its day.

Edo period Japan was a time of vast cultural change and perhaps the most profound period of change to affect Japan after the establishment of the shogunate. In 1615, the Tokugawa shoguns came to power and ended a century-long period of civil war. This peace was to last two hundred and fifty years. These were centuries of tremendous prosperity and development in Japan. Rural towns sprung up around warlords’ castles and grew to become great urban areas with large trade and merchant classes, classes that became wealthy by servicing the needs of those who made up the new urban communities of Kyoto (Japan’s capital at the time), Edo (present day Tokyo) and Osaka. Japan’s urbanization was unparalleled in its day. By 1740, Edo had become the seat of the shogunate and the largest city in the world with a population of more than one million people.

Throughout its history, Japan had been a country of social castes, and the Edo period was not exceptional in this respect. There were four officially recognized classes: the samurai or warrior class, a farming class, an artisan class and a swelling merchant class. The balance and well-being of Japanese society depended on the continual reinforcement of these divisions especially as urban centers swelled with migrants from rural areas.

A natural by-product of this huge population shift was the development of a cash economy which enabled a new group that was not the traditional nobility to indulge in new found leisure activities. This factor, coupled with rising literacy rates, improved state infrastructure, and a burgeoning publishing industry, generated a cultivated leisure class accustomed always to new and more refined forms of entertainment than what was always currently available. This strong demand for novelty created a firestorm of creative activity in the arts and letters.

The wants of Japan’s new leisure class were indulged at every level including the most base. Prostitution became a pervasive problem in the cities; one that was not to be stamped out by official means. To control the flesh trade, pleasure quarters were defined in major cities; the most famous being the "Floating World" (ukiyo) of Edo, the Yoshiwara pleasure district.

The Floating World encompassed and provided many things to its habitues. There were, of course, prostitutes ready to serve at the nod of a head, but there was much more than that alone. These pleasure quarters served as centers of craftsmanship, artistry, ritualized social interaction and culture; a wealthy merchant might meet a client for tea and be attended to by his favorite geisha. At the tea house, he might receive from his client a new series of woodcut prints, a  piece of furniture, or an elaborate calligraphic work. Tea or sake would be enjoyed while the day’s events were discussed. Perhaps a trip to see the latest production at a favorite Kabuki theater would follow, and if the client were especially important, the services of his master’s geisha’s apprentice would be offered to provide a bath or a nightcap.

Whatever it was that might be desired, a successful merchant could procure within the confines of the Yoshiwara district. This city within a city became an inspiration for Edo’s artisan painters who depicted its culture in beautiful paintings which were in turn copied to woodblocks, printed in editions and sold at reasonable prices to whomever wished to have examples of the arts of ukiyo-e (pictures of the floating world) to adorn their homes.

At first these ukiyo-e were simple black line images that derived their techniques from the book printing style of their day. Like the Kabuki theater, they were available to anyone who could afford their price. In this way they provided vicarious experiences to those who could not afford to hire an expensive geisha or courtesan.

As their popularity grew, Edo’s taste for novelty fomented the development of a multiple block technique that produced as many as twenty colors and shading in an image so complex and subtle as to belie their origins as a prints. Almost always, the ukiyo-e depicted the lives of those who inhabited or served Edo’s pleasure quarter: courtesans, Kabuki actors, sumo wrestlers and those whose livelihoods depended on serving these groups.

It wasn’t until the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century that the landscapes that are so familiar to contemporary viewers became commonly known. It is at this point that the craft of woodblock printing achieved its zenith, especially at the hands of two men who were masters at the use of the existing visual vocabulary of the print while introducing their own variations.

Katsushika Hokusai (1760- 1849) and Utagawa Hiroshige (1797- 1858) pioneered the depiction of the landscape as a subject matter worthy of individual attention. Until this time, the landscape was a minor genre or only something to be considered as the environment through which a group of courtesans might process. Hokusai and Hiroshige created landscapes that were masterful depictions of the impassive majesty of the natural world and acknowledged the smallness of our most harmonious human habitation.

Both men were known for their series prints that took specific looks at individual subjects (waterfalls, for example) or temporal studies of single subjects. Influenced by western copper plate engravings, the two integrated western perspectives and ideas about the depiction of landscapes with traditional Japanese and Chinese ideas about painting the spiritual essence of a subject matter.

In 1853, Admiral Matthew Perry, American naval officer, steamed into Japan to demand the opening of Japan’s ports to international trade (until this time the Japanese traded only with the Dutch and Chinese). The Japanese acquiesced to Perry’s demands and opened their ports to the full force of mid-nineteenth century trade. At the same time, the shogunate feudal system was beginning to dissolve due to reformist pressures fueled by the merchant class and their demands for political representation.

By the 1870’s the Japanese had a determined goal of becoming an industrial and military world power. Edo was still the center of political power, but things were changing for the Yoshiwara district. Outside cultural influence and massive industrial development proved to be too much for the culture of the idle connoisseur. Before long, the market for ukiyo-e vanished, and the prints became nostalgic images of a disappearing and isolationist time. This was so much the case that many undistributed images became packing material for goods shipped overseas.

Today, we have a new appreciation the artisans and artists that produced these wonderful images. Large collections of prints have seen museum circuit tours, most notably the James A. Michener collection in 1998. From our current perspective, we are able to see not only the influence of these works on the Impressionist painters and subsequent influence on western art, but also the individual vitality and masterwork of many of these prints. The woodblock prints of the Edo period have entered the pantheon of great works of human creation and understanding. This is not so bad for an art form that grew from such inauspicious beginnings.



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