Behind the scenes of ukiyo-e prints

by Yoko Haruhara

Special To The Japan Times

Everyday life in Edo (present-day Tokyo) was befitting of a capital city — an era of beautiful women, graceful kabuki actors, bustling streets and breathtaking sights. The peace and stability imposed by the Edo Period (1603-1868) Tokugawa Shogunate allowed the city to flourish and led to the growth of a leisure class of consumers intent on enjoying its marvels. During this time, ukiyo-e woodblock prints also became popular, as they captured cultural triumphs and depicted the people and townscape of Japan’s capital city.

“Excellent Techniques of Carving and Printing: 250th Birth Anniversary of Multi-Colored Print,” at the Ukiyo-e Ota Memorial Museum of Art, showcases the techniques employed by artists, carvers and printers to create ukiyo-e prints, while highlighting contributions by the often anonymous artisans who were essential to the print-making process. It wasn’t until the 1850s, nearly a century after the birth of the polychrome print, that it became common practice for the most skilled carvers to be credited on prints, with their names alongside those of the artists.

Making a multicolored print was an intensive process that began with the artist using a brush to create an outline on paper. Next, the carver engraved the design into a wood block. Separate blocks were created for various colors. Lastly, the printer applied pigment to the blocks, pressing or burnishing a piece of paper onto each block in succession to transfer the colors.

This exhibition is the ukiyo-e version of getting an intimate backstage pass to a grand theater. Works by renowned pioneering artists and others, including Suzuki Harunobu (c. 1725-70), Kitagawa Utamaro (c. 1753-1806), Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849), and Utagawa Hiroshige (1797-1858) are on display, while the focus on techniques prompts an appreciation of the enormous amount of backstage talent that went into designing and assembling multicolored prints. This is acheived through separate exhibition areas devoted to detailing the specific work of carvers and printers.

Perhaps the most well-known carving technique used to make these prints is kewari, the painstaking carving process used to replicate strands of hair on a subject’s hairline. A master carver was able to accurately carve the outline of individual hairs less than a millimeter in width, a level of detail that was essential to depicting women’s hairstyles. “Courtesan Hanazuma of the Hyogo-ya House” (1795-96), part of a series of prints titled “Comparing the Charms of Five Beauties” by Kitagawa Utamaro, exemplifies the use of this technique. Utamaro’s phenomenal popularity as an artist was due to his great success at depicting beautiful women, and here the woman is subtly sensual, her loose hair flowing across her forehead and neck. The print captures an intimate, informal moment in her dressing room.

Another significant work is Utagawa Kunisada’s “Gohyakurakan-ji Temple” (c. 1821), one of the 10 prints of “The Pride of Edo,” a series that depicts beautiful women at various locales around the capital. “Gohyakurakan-ji Temple” portrays a mother breast-feeding her baby as she sits under a voluminous green mosquito net. Looking through the depiction of the net’s fine mesh gives the viewer a voyeuristic sense of peeking in on a private scene. To create the mesh, the net’s horizontal lines were carved into a separate wood block to the vertical ones, and the two printed to overlap.

Just as the carver created refined effects through the creation of fine lines, the printer had his own set of innovative techniques, including shading, embossing, color gradations and burnishing. The print “Night View of Saruwaka- cho” (1856), part of the series “One Hundred Famous Views of Edo” by Hiroshige, provides a masterful example of color gradation. Portraying a night scene in the entertainment district, it shows a bustling street scene of kabuki theaters and tea houses under a full moon. The evening sky is a seamless gradation of blue shades from dark to pale. The greatest challenge for printers was maintaining uniformity in the appearance of such gradations when executing numerous prints. Another challenge for the printer was the application of innovative techniques to enhance a print’s appearance. The itamezuri rubbing technique used in “Night View of Saruwaka-cho,” for example, was used to bring out the block’s natural woodgrain, giving texture and the illusion of depth to the sky.

Multicolored woodblock prints of the Edo Period have left a remarkable legacy in the history of Japanese art. They capture the elan of the era and reveal the incredible refinement of carving and printing techniques employed in the woodblock-print genre. In its lucid depiction of many techniques and its celebration of the talent of not just artists but also carvers and printers, this exhibition is a must-see for all fans of ukiyo-e prints.

“Excellent Techniques of Carving and Printing: 250th Birth Anniversary of Multi-Colored Ukiyo-e Print” at the Ukiyo-e Ota Memorial Museum of Art runs until Sept. 27; 10:30 a.m.-5:30 p.m. ¥700. Closed Mon.

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