28 Oct – 6 Nov 2016

Japanese woodblock prints of the 18th and 19th Centuries record an exotic, vibrant, colourful and highly sophisticated society in a form which constitutes a significant element in the history of world graphic art. The imagery takes the viewer into a world of Kabuki plays and actors, courtesans and beautiful women, heroes of legend, historical battles, the Japanese landscape, and erotica. Moreover, their design and the colour woodblock printing technique had an extraordinary and lasting influence on Western art and graphic design.

Artistically, the appeal of Japanese prints lies in their use of thin expressive lines, luscious, clear but flat planes of colour, bold composition and a reduction to essentials. The craftsmanship involved in their production, coupled with design is unrivalled in world art.

This long and rich heritage of print making experienced a renaissance both between the World Wars and into the modern era. The art form is well suited to the Japanese temperament which prizes excellence and precise craftsmanship, respect for materials, artistic sensitivity and an eye for composition, balance and colour.

As a result Japanese prints of all periods have been collected ever since Japan opened to the West in the mid-19th Century and continue to resonate with collectors, artists and the viewing public today.

The 28 prints on show are a selection from a major exhibition to be held at Australian Galleries, Melbourne in February/March 2017.

Historical background

The civilization that produced these extraordinary works of art, was itself an extraordinary one. The aristocracy had, by 1600, held the reins of power in Japan for more than 300 years; but this was the age of constant feuding between the great war lords. In the early years of the 1600’s, the war lords were subjugated and the country unified under the iron fist dictatorship of the Shogun Tokugawa dynasty which was to last unbroken for 250 years until 1868. The Emperor was an enfeebled prisoner in the imperial palace in Kyoto.

By directing that all members of the landed feudal lords (Daimyo) along with their entire households and retinue should spend every other year in residence in Edo, then a small fishing village, the Shogun Tokugawa created almost at a stroke a major city of great wealth. By the beginning of the 18thC, 100 years later, with a population of more than 1 million, it was the largest city in the world.

Tokugawa brought peace and stability through rigid controls of everyday life: Christianity was outlawed, and foreigners expelled; travel abroad was forbidden; the only contact with the outside world was with the Dutch who were allowed to trade once a year from an isolated port near Nagasaki; and every aspect of every day living was subject to summary regulation. This was an hermetically sealed world for 250 years: a hot house in which exotic blooms flourished.

But it was also a society in which the demands on the feudal lords in taxes and from their hugely expensive life style, had the effect of diverting wealth to the merchant class or townspeople (Chonin).

In a highly stratified society, the townspeople were the lowest order; lower than farmers and artisans. They were totally despised by the aristocracy. They had no power and no influence socially or politically. They were denied the arts of the aristocracy, for example, Noh theatre; but in any event thought them too esoteric. In turn, the aristocracy viewed the Kabuki theatre and the prints that recorded it as unutterably vulgar. All the townspeople could do with their wealth was to devote it to a life of pleasure, a life style of their own creation, vigorous, lively, highly skilled and literate: the Kabuki theatre, puppet theatre, sumo wrestling, tea houses and restaurants, sumptuous clothes, festivals, geishas and courtesans.

Courtesans were usually trained from a very early age——-highly educated and sophisticated in the arts of painting poetry and learning. .Those with the greatest intelligence, poise and graciousness were celebrated personalities They were the supermodels of their day. They set the fashion; their every move was followed and discussed.

This world was described as: Living for the moment / Viewing the moon; the cherry blossom / Singing songs and drinking wine / Floating like a gourd on the river / That is Ukiyo – the Floating World.

Ukiyo-e: Pictures of the Floating World. It is the hedonistic , transient life of pleasure that is captured persuasively in the woodblock prints of the period.


Essentially a woodblock print is created by cutting into the surface of the wood to raise a line which, when inked, creates an image when paper is pressed upon it. The technique was brought to Japan from China by returning novice Buddhist priests in the 8th Century for printing religious texts. Soon this was deployed to print poetry and literature, and, by 1600, to illustrate novels. By 1700, books of pictures were in demand and the first acknowledged master of Ukiyo-e had emerged. It was a short step to start to produce single broadsheet pictures; and from the early 18thCentury Ukiyo-e became dominated by the single print—although albums and picture books continued to flourish and together form the highest degree of book illustration seen in world art. Registration of colour printing was perfected in the 1740s and with it the golden age of Japanese woodblock prints emerged.

Japanese woodblock prints are the product of the artist’s design, the skills of the wood carver and the printer; all brought together by the publisher.

There was no concept of limited editions: prints were sold to meet demand. They were the equivalent of 20th Century posters: if no one bought them, they stopped production, but hugely successful images were produced until the woodblocks wore out. Even then, new blocks were cut to continue printing.

The question is not how many were printed but how many have survived given their ephemeral use, the fires that ravaged Edo on average every ten years, and Japan’s turn to the West in the late 19th Century.