Woodblock prints are a widely recognized and iconic form of Japanese art, celebrated for their one-of-a-kind process and distinctive aesthetic. They have no Western equivalent, one where breathtaking landscapes exist alongside blush-inducing erotica; where courtesans, kabuki actors, and sumo wrestlers are celebrities; and where demons and otherworldly creatures torment the living.
Woodblock printing in Japan 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 stand-alone 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 of this and best known for his quasi-calligraphic line.
Since printing in more than one color 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 colors.
The resulting prints were called nishiki-e (“brocade pictures”). They were created by making a set of woodblocks, starting with the “key-block,” which had 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 color. Each color woodblock would then be printed in turn, using a registration system that would allow careful alignment of each block.
When people think of Japanese prints today, it tends to be the vivid, full-color examples made after Harunobu. By the 19th century, artists were producing remarkably subtle effects, such as the shifting tones of the outstanding sunsets and expanses of water by Utagawa Hiroshige (1797-1858).
Woodblock prints are broken down into three main categories: ukiyo-e – traditional woodblock prints of the 17th through 19th centuries; shin-hanga – created from the late Meiji era until World War II, showing a mixture of traditional Japanese and modern western elements; and sosaku-hanga – avant-garde movement of the 1950s-1970s.
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 exciting culture of the Edo period (1603-1868), which promoted fashion, theater, and a growing interest in the Japanese landscape. Ukiyo-e prints were produced in a collaborative system where a publisher hired an artist to produce a design, artisans to carve the woodblocks, and printers to print the finished work.
According to Anastasia von Seibold, senior specialist in Japanese art at Christie’s, the subject matter of ukiyo-e 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, theaters and brothels proved equally popular with Edo’s new merchant class and turned its courtesans and kabuki actors into stars. 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.
A leading artist of the time was Kitagawa Utamaro (1753-1806), who is renowned for his sensuous depictions of sumptuously dressed women. In 2016, his Deeply Hidden Love fetched $883,519 at a French auction house sale in association with Christie’s — the second-highest price ever paid for a Japanese print at auction.
Ukiyo-e artists eventually 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 Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849). In his famous series, Fifty-Three Stations of the Tokaido, Hiroshige captured sites and scenes along the 300-mile highway to Kyoto. For his own monumental series, Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji, Hokusai focused on the sacred mountain, Mount Fuji, visible from that highway, depicting it from different viewpoints in different seasons, said von Seihold.
One of Hokusai’s ukiyo-e woodblock prints from his series in 1831 is one of the world’s most iconic pieces of Asian art: Under the Wave off Kanagawa (Kanagawa oki nami ura), also known as The Great Wave. In it, a massive wave threatens to engulf three fishing boats, its foam crown extending like claws, menacing the rowers below. It’s an epic scene of human struggle and natural terror that dwarfs the sacred Mount Fuji just behind it. In September, this set the world record for the print by the artist when it sold for $1.1 million at Christie’s, breaking its previous record set in 2017 when it fetched $943,500, also at Christie’s.
“Kitagawa Utamaro, Katsushika Hokusai and Utagawa Hiroshige belong in the pantheon of all-time great artists,” said von Seibold.
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, reveling 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.
In foreign policy, the Edo period was marked by isolationism, and Japan all but abandoned trade with other nations, as well as banning travel in and out of the country. That changed, however, when the final Tokugawa shogun was ousted in 1868. 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, as well the esteemed American architect Frank Lloyd Wright, were all captivated fans and collectors.
According to von Seibold, the market for ukiyo-e has markedly strengthened since around 2013. “There’s a sense that they were relatively undervalued before that,” she said.
Von Seibold said that 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. Hokusai is still the biggest name internationally, thanks to the ubiquity of images of The Great Wave and also Red Fuji. In 2019, two years after the former set a new world record, a print of Red Fuji sold for $600,582 at Christie’s in New York.
“The wonderful thing about ukiyo-e,” said von Seibold, “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, she said that Hiroshige tends to be popular, as his visions of nature and landscape are so beautiful. Although popular designs in good condition can fetch high prices, it is possible to purchase good Hiroshige prints for under $6,000.
According to Collecting Japanese Prints, a leading gallery in Japanese arts in Wilmette, Illinois, sosaku hanga or “creative prints” were produced by artists who were completely self-directed and designed, carved, and printed their work entirely themselves, abandoning the traditional collaborative process of making woodblock prints. Sosaku hanga is highly individualized work, showcasing experimental printing techniques and deeply expressive subject matter that resulted in emotionally potent and psychologically probing work. Notable sosahu hanga artists include Fujimori Shizuo, Fumio Kitaoka, Shiko Munakata, Onchi Koshiro, Ono Tadashige, Kiyoshi Saito, Jun’ichiro Sekino, Kiyokichi Tanaka, Taninaka Yasunori, and Yamamoto Kanae. Significant Sosaku hanga collections have been assembled by notable private collections as well as public institutions the world over.
Originally initiated by the woodblock publisher Shozaburo Watanabe, shin hanga or “new prints” were a revision of earlier ukiyo-e or 17th-to-19th–century Japanese prints. Like ukiyo-e, shin hanga prints were produced with a collaborative system where a publisher hired an artist to produce a design and artisans to carve the woodblocks and printers to print the finished work, said CJP. Notable work includes the actor portraits of Toyonari and Shunsen, the images of beautiful women (bijin-ga) by Goyo, Kotondo, and Shinsui, renderings of wildlife by Koson, Shoson, and Hoson, and the landscapes of Hasui, Hiroaki, and H. Yoshida. The gallery said that fine museum-quality examples of these are scarce.
Japanese woodblock prints range in value from a few hundred dollars to more than $1 million. Exceptional examples by master printmakers like Hiroshige, Hokusai, and Utamaro, which tend to make infrequent appearances on the open market, fetch impressive prices due to their age and rarity, said von Seibold.
Broadly speaking, the more eminent the artist, the pricier the work, she said, 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.
“Issues such as fading, wormholes, tears and restoration will greatly affect the value of a print,” von Seibold said.
Framing and Care
Because of the vegetable-based pigments used, Japanese prints are light-sensitive and colors can fade, said von Seibold. “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, said the specialist, 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 generations to come.