Japanese Woodblock Prints





As 18th and 19th century Japanese woodblock prints were designed for a popular culture audience; unsurprisingly they also appeal to American undergrads in the 21st century, the travel prints of  Hiroshige are especially popular. If you are unfamiliar with this accessible and enjoyable art form, take a peek.  Rather than include images of an entire series, a few special prints are presented here, along with a bit about the process.


Hiroshige (1797 - 1858)
Driving Rain at Shono, the 45th station
in the Fifty-three Stations of the Tokaido series

Woodblock prints were initially used in eighth century Japan to disseminate Buddhist scriptures. In the eighteenth century  a new technology made it possible to produce single-sheet prints in a whole range of colors. Printmakers who had worked in monochrome and painted the colors in by hand began to employ full polychrome painting techniques to wonderful effect. The first polychrome prints were calendars made for  the wealthy in Edo, where it was customary to exchange beautifully objects. But soon the prints were produced in large quantities and widely distributed. The became know a "ukiyo-e" - pictures of the floating world -  Japanese pop culture and every day scenes - actors, sports figures, waterfalls, and so onThe prints were not the product of a single artist, but required the collaboration of four experts: the designer, the engraver, the printer, and the publisher. A print was usually conceived and produced as a commercial venture by the publisher. The publisher chose the theme and determined the quality of the work. Designers were dependent on the skill of the engravers and of the printers to implement the design. Unlike the lone artist hero of the west, the Japanese work as a team. 
The image was designed by the artist on paper and then transferred to a thin paper. Following the lines on the paper, pasted to a wooden block, the carver chiseled and cut the block creating a negative—with the lines and areas to be colored in relief. Ink was applied to the surface of the woodblock by the printer, who then rubbed a round pad over the back of a piece of paper laid over the top of the inked board to make a print.

One of the most successful of the woodblock artist was Ando Hiroshige (1797-1858).  Most of the prints appearing in this piece are from his series, Fifty-three Stations of the Tokaido. To throughly appreciate the prints, a few notes about the Tokaido and the fifty-three Station should be helpful.

The Tokaido (east sea road)  was the most important route connecting Edo (Tokyo) to Kyoto (the old imperial capital). It  stretched about 290 miles from Nihonbashi in the center of Edo to the Great Sanjo Bridge in Kyoto, a journey of ten days or two weeks. The Fifty-three stations were government sanctioned stops alone the route. The stops consisted of porter stations and horse stables, as well as lodging, restaurants,  and other places a traveler may want to visit.


 At a few points along the route, there were checkpoints where travelers had to present travel permits to continue. During the Edo period, tourism was booming, leading to increased  interest in travel momentos. In the midst of this burgeoning travel culture, Hiroshige and his team produced this series  of the stopping points along the Tokaido in the 1830's.


In terms of style, Hiroshige is especially noted for using unusual vantage points, seasonal allusions, and striking colors. He adapted Western principles of perspective and receding space to his own works and achieved a sense of realistic depth.


Kambar, the 15th Station.

2nd station

            2nd Station, Kawasaki



Mishima, stop # 11

35th goyu

35th station, Goyu





 This print from another travel series, "The Sixty-nine Stations of the Kisokaido", is one of the finest snow scenes designed by Hiroshige. The extraordinary representation of  falling snow and the two mounted travelers led by guides on foot are central in the image, but also notice the two large pine trees and the background of irregular hills.


Links: Fifty-three stations
          Sixty-nine stations
                                              Encyclopedia of Woodblock Printmaking