Japanese Prints: The Art Institute of Chicago

Japanese Prints: The Art Institute of Chicago

by James T. Ulak

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Another in the Abbeville's Tiny Folios series, this little book is a real gem. The Art Institute of Chicago houses one of the world's most beautiful and comprehensive collections of Japanese woodblock prints in the world. Clarence Buckingham, of the famed Chicago family, donated 12,000 prints alone. The book covers this exquisite collection of work from the 17th to

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Another in the Abbeville's Tiny Folios series, this little book is a real gem. The Art Institute of Chicago houses one of the world's most beautiful and comprehensive collections of Japanese woodblock prints in the world. Clarence Buckingham, of the famed Chicago family, donated 12,000 prints alone. The book covers this exquisite collection of work from the 17th to 19th centuries in four sections: Primitives, Courtesans, Actors, and Landscapes. It includes work by well-known masters such as Hiroshige, Hokusia, and Utamaro, as well as lesser-known talents such as Shun'ei, Shunko, and Kiyonaga. While the trim size is small, none of the subtle colors, delicate paper texture, or intricate fabric design is lost.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Another in the Abbeville's Tiny Folios series, this little book is a real gem. The Art Institute of Chicago houses one of the world's most beautiful and comprehensive collections of Japanese woodblock prints in the world. Clarence Buckingham, of the famed Chicago family, donated 12,000 prints alone. The book covers this exquisite collection of work from the 17th to 19th centuries in four sections: Primitives, Courtesans, Actors, and Landscapes. It includes work by well-known masters such as Hiroshige, Hokusia, and Utamaro, as well as lesser-known talents such as Shun'ei, Shunko, and Kiyonaga. While the trim size is small, none of the subtle colors, delicate paper texture, or intricate fabric design is lost." —Amazon.com

"The small size of this title may not lend to easy library circulation but it makes an excellent and affordable gift: over 270 prints are reproduced in full color, selected from the Institute's collection of woodblock prints, and provides a fine range of works from the mid-seventeenth to the mid-nineteenth century. An excellent survey." —Midwest Book Review

Product Details

Abbeville Publishing Group
Publication date:
Tiny Folio Series
Edition description:
New Edition
Product dimensions:
4.20(w) x 4.58(h) x 1.07(d)

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Japanese woodblock prints have been available to Westerners for slightly over one hundred years. For many, these works have supplied memorable visions of a complex, elusive, and exotic culture. Even when the artists' names and the exact titles are unknown, the prints charm and inform. For most uninitiated viewers, the distinctions between Japanese art and the artistic traditions of China, Korea, and even Southeast Asia are blurred. But the Japanese print remains a comfortable point of recognition, particularly through a handful of popular images, such as Katsushika Hokusai's Great Wave off Kanagawa (page 268).

The major collections of Japanese prints in Europe and America rival and often exceed, in quantity and quality, those found in Japan. A significant portion of Japan's artistic legacy was exported, and its appreciation, both popular and scholarly, was conceded to the West. In 1854 Japan concluded a treaty with the United States that granted trade and fueling ports to the Fledgling but ominously powerful Western nation. In short order, similar agreements were signed with Russia, England, and the Netherlands. Since the mid-seventeenth century, Japan had enforced an isolationism that allowed only a trickle of trade with the West. When it finally conceded to the West, Japan was in a state of political upheaval. Within two decades of the First Western incursions, a new form of government was in place. Ostensibly restoring imperial rule after centuries of shogunal or military dictatorship, the new government was in fact evolving into a kind of constitutional monarchy. The imperial line remained a symbolic rallying point, but real power was distributed regionally andexercised through a parliament and a central bureaucracy.

For the First time in more than two hundred years, Japan was exposed to a curious outside world. Having observed colonial exploitation throughout East Asia, Japan was intent on achieving economic and military parity with the countries whose navies cruised at will in Asian waters. By the turn of the century it had mustered enough industrial capacity to gain the attention of its perceived rivals. It also waged war with China (1894-95) and achieved a stalemate in a war with Russia (1904-5), during which it destroyed the Russian Baltic Fleet at the Straits of Tsukushima (1905)—a military achievement that forced the West to acknowledge Japan's naval sophistication.

By the 1880s an increasing amount of Japanese religious and secular art was available on the international market. Two important influences contributed to this phenomenon. The First was Japan's ambiguous attitude toward its own cultural heritage, a tradition that some viewed as a stumbling block to modernization. There was no wholesale rejection of the past, but as the nation's elite focused on the mastery of foreign cultural models, indigenous art, both ancient and contemporary, suffered a period of neglect. Some of this neglect was longstanding, due in equal parts to the costliness of preservation and to a kind of dismissive familiarity. Temples crumbled, the importance of certain religious icons was overlooked, and previously valued works found their way onto the international market. The second cause for the unprecedented availability of Japanese art abroad was the institutional suppression of Buddhism. The new nationalist government curtailed the favorable tax arrangements long enjoyed by Buddhism, and temples were forced to relinquish considerable landholdings. In many cases, these reforms necessitated the sale of religious icons. To be sure, knowledgeable Japanese connoisseurs, collectors, and purveyors of fine art continued to pursue their interests. But a national attentiveness to the value of the country's artistic heritage and the need to preserve it was still years in the future.

In counterbalance to this domestic trend was the growing critical and popular attention to Japanese art by the international market—an attention that both pleased and astounded the Japanese. Competent historical surveys were published, in Europe and in the United States, that identified and appraised the landmarks of Japanese art for the Western reader. These and other efforts, together with the availability of Japanese paintings, prints, and sculptures in the West, slowly established Japanese art as one of the world's great art traditions.

The woodblock print had an especially strong appeal to Westerners. Inexpensive and portable, prints offered a window on a mysterious culture, although their reportorial value was seldom as accurate as commonly imagined. The world depicted in the prints was often highly idealized—generally the circumscribed sphere of urban sensual pleasures. Many sophisticated Western collectors could understand the woodblock print in ways unfamiliar to their Japanese counterparts. Since appreciation of prints was a well-established element of Western connoisseurship, collectors knowledgeable about European masters were well equipped to make discerning formal analyses of Japanese woodblock prints. Usually unencumbered by a knowledge of Japan's language or history, early collectors easily resisted the temptation (characteristic of some scholars today) to relegate prints to the status of documents.

The idea that the Japanese at the turn of the century did not appreciate the woodblock print is contradicted by the existence of so many refined works, particularly the polychrome images of theater, beautiful women, and landscapes produced in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Nonetheless, there was strong resistance to admitting the woodblock print into the pantheon of Japanese fine art. Just as the industrial and military sectors of Japan were adapting the organizational techniques of the West, so universities were slowly integrating Western academic methodology into the fabric of Japanese education. In defining a history of Japanese art, academics and critics credited the court-dominated art and aesthetic sensibility of the Heian period (794-1185) as the highest achievement in Japanese art—Japan's "classical" period. In contrast, standard woodblock prints were regarded as an expression of the bourgeois taste of a newly moneyed merchant class. Prints represented the antithesis of the reserved elegance that was lauded as "courtly" taste, and their easy availability and rather common subject matter further diminished their perceived importance. Prints were granted a tiny niche in the historical chronology, but no serious scholar based his reputation on their study.

Western collectors, however, were either unaware of or undeterred by Japanese reservations. The impact of the Japanese print on American and European painting, architecture, and decorative art of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries has been extensively documented. The rage for japonisme, whether expressed through outright copying or more subtle integration of Japanese elements, influenced many Western creations. The composition, colors, and content of Japanese prints inspired works by Mary Cassatt, Vincent van Gogh, Edouard Manet, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, James McNeill Whistler, and many others.

World's fairs held in Europe and the United States from the 1860s through the turn of the century introduced Japanese culture to many in the West. The 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago was one of the most spectacular of these fairs. It featured a Japanese pavilion that was a full-scale replica of the Phoenix Hall (Ho-o do), the eleventh-century central chapel of By_od_o-in, a Buddhist temple in Uji, southeast of Kyoto. The Phoenix Hall was one of the most elegant examples of Heian period architecture; its replica was thought to be a totally appropriate setting for the promotion of Japanese culture. Within various rooms of the hall, works by contemporary Japanese craftsmen were displayed in contexts somewhat incongruous with the classical refinement of the space.

The Phoenix Hall replica was studied carefully by the young Frank Lloyd Wright, whose early architecture expressed considerable sympathy with the ancient temple's low horizontal lines and skillful integration with the environment. Today Wright's name is the most recognized among the group of Chicagoans who were mesmerized by Japan. Considerably more prominent at the time was Clarence Buckingham. Son of a Chicago banker and a major figure in the city's commercial and financial realms, Buckingham began collecting woodblock prints in the early 1890s. The reasons for his initial attraction are unclear, although he seems to have been one of many touched by the enthusiasm of Frederick Gookin, a Buckingham bank employee whose collection of Japanese prints predated Buckingham's. A meticulous scholar and connoisseur, Gookin regularly presided at salons devoted to the discussion of Japanese prints.

Buckingham closely followed Gookin's advice through the 1890s. Around 1904 Gookin left the bank to establish himself as an art consultant and dealer; he advised a number of important American collectors and maintained close ties with Buckingham. Wright was also actively collecting and selling Japanese prints, and during the first decade of the century he staged several large and successful exhibitions of Japanese prints at The Art Institute of Chicago. The prints themselves clearly inspired Wright's design schemes, while dealing in them provided him with necessary income. Wright sold as many as three hundred prints to Buckingham, many of them by the popular nineteenth-century artist And_o Hiroshige. A century later, and with a frustrating paucity of records, it is difficult to reconstruct how Buckingham assembled his collection and to distinguish his tastes from those of his advisors. Gookin's intense interest in late-eighteenth-century actor prints seems to have gained momentum after Buckingham's death, and the latter's purchases from Wright—by and large, popular landscapes with architectural elements—may have been inspired as much by a desire to find a dignified means of lending financial support to the architect as by a specific interest in that type of image.

The ink-monochrome and hand-colored prints produced in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries reflect perhaps the most sophisticated level of appreciation found in the Buckingham collection. Though often lacking the color and flamboyance of later prints, the best of these early works—sometimes called "primitives"—convey an energy and a simple elegance unobscured by technical complexity.

In 1914, the year after her brother's death, Kate Buckingham arranged for his prints to be moved to the Art Institute, with the stipulation that Gookin be appointed keeper of the collection. Under the direction of Gookin and Kate Buckingham, who sustained her brother's avid interest in prints, the collection continued to grow. In 1925 the prints—then numbering about twenty-five hundred works—were officially donated to the museum, and Miss Buckingham established an endowment to ensure the maintenance and continued growth of the print collection. Now encompassing approximately twelve thousand works, the Buckingham collection is one of the world's most beautiful and historically comprehensive collections of Japanese prints.

Woodblock printing has been practiced in Japan since at least the eighth century, when the comparatively simple technique was used almost exclusively by Buddhists to reproduce religious icons and texts. They employed block printing as a tool for proselytizing, making available images and texts held in central temples to remote and sometimes impoverished communities. In addition to being inexpensive, this process ensured a uniformity of message. Originally produced in black ink, these religious images were later often colored by hand. Many were intended as substitutes for paintings and in some cases were mistaken for them. Although the Buddhists experimented with casting printing blocks in bronze, the use of wood predominated. Until the seventeenth century, the Buddhists had a monopoly on the woodblock-printing process, essentially by default, as no other enterprise had need for a similar means of mass dissemination.

From about the eighth to the fourteenth century, the usual expressions of high culture-such as literature, painting, and calligraphy—were the closely guarded purview of the aristocracy and, tangentially, of the Buddhist establishment. Works of art were produced by court or temple ateliers for a limited number of patrons. By the early 1600s Tokugawa Ieyasu managed to subdue the other provincial warlords and establish dictatorial control of the nation from the eastern city of Edo (modern-day Tokyo). Much to the consternation of the aristocracy, the privileges of cultural arbitration were also assumed by the military and emerging middle classes. The national stability that had begun to take hold in the late 1500s was due, in part, to a confident class of merchants, particularly those residing in Osaka and Kyoto, who understood that commercial and financial skills would be essential to any new social order.

The neo-Confucian ideal of social ranking mandated a hierarchy, in descending order, of warrior, farmer, artisan, and merchant. The Tokugawa government endorsed the hierarchy in principle but understood the importance of keeping its merchants prosperous and contented. The government endorsed a carefully circumscribed realm of pleasure as a means of reward and release, especially for the urban populations. Thus, in the First half of the seventeenth century, licensed quarters were established in Edo (Yoshiwara, 1617), Osaka (Shimmachi, c. 1624-44), and Kyoto (Shimabara, 1640). Brothels had existed for many years, and unlicensed quarters persisted, but the designation of these areas in major cities guaranteed a modicum of regulation.

A new kind of celebratory art had risen to prominence during the last quarter of the sixteenth century, especially in Kyoto. Resilient townspeople had emerged from the chaos of the war-torn sixteenth century with a new awareness of their own power and importance. The city itself was celebrated in paintings that convey a sense of balance, order, prosperity, and pleasure. Bird's-eye views of the city show streets lined with shops of all descriptions, bustling with people going about their tasks or participating in processions and festivals. These large-scale painted images, often affixed to hanging scrolls or folding screens, meticulously detail the latest fashions, showing foppish dandies and elegant women at play under blossoming cherry or autumn maple. Although Japanese painters had paid attention to recreational activities, for centuries they had shown them only as passing references tucked into more serious narratives. But as the seventeenth century dawned, the pleasure—taking of the merchant class was frequently depicted for its own sake. The dalliances of beautiful men and women and a new form of theater called Kabuki began to emerge as popular themes for painting.

Through the first half of the seventeenth century, depicting the worlds of pleasure continued to be the task of painters, with the potential of the woodblock print still to be explored. The single-sheet print that rose to prominence by the end of the century was preceded by block-printed illustrated books. In the First decade of the seventeenth century, a prosperous Kyoto merchant, Suminokura Soan, enlisted two of the city's best artists—Tawaraya S_otatsu and Hon'ami K_oetsu-in the production of elegant, limited-edition, block-printed volumes of illustrated classical texts. Though not readily accessible to commoners, these works exemplified the appropriation of the classical literary canon by the merchant class. The elevated standards of the Suminokura productions were achieved less often during the ensuing century, but they marked the First significant attempt to produce deluxe printed works.

By the middle of the seventeenth century the pleasure world began to make increasing use of woodblock printing, particularly in the form of the popular "pillow books." These frank and engaging erotic manuals were produced in ink-monochrome of varying technical quality. Somewhat more subtle variants are the "critiques" of courtesans, which usually feature generic images of women interspersed with humorous texts regarding their skills. Even in these early books it was financial for authors and artists to resist classical puns and allusions, and they became recurring features in depictions of the demimonde.

It was at this time that the woodblock print and the world of erotica became interdependent. Indeed, ukiyo-e (which can be translated as "a picture of the floating world") has become virtually, though inaccurately, synonymous with the woodblock print. Originally a Buddhist term describing the sad, transitory realm of human existence, during the Edo period ukiyo came to designate the pursuit of escapist pleasures. As the mass-produced prints were marketed to a larger and more anonymous market, the woodblock print gradually usurped from painting the depiction of life in the pleasure quarters.

The labor-intensive process of making woodblock prints remained relatively unchanged from its introduction in the eighth century. In the late sixteenth century, Japanese printmakers experimented briefly with movable type, but the flowing lines of calligraphy were more easily replicated by carving text on a single block.

There were three essential stages in creating each print: designing the image, carving it onto a woodblock, and printing from the woodblock to paper. The sketch, or detailed drawing, of the proposed image was made on semitranslucent paper. The drawing was then gently pasted, face down, to the flat surface of a woodblock, preferably a seasoned, fine-grained cherry or boxwood that had been planed smooth. Using a number of specialized tools, the carver cut through the paper and into the wood. Hollowing out areas circumscribed by the line drawing, the carver left the drawing lines in relief on the woodblock. The block was cleaned and inked, then a sheet of paper was pressed on and rubbed. When pulled off the block, the paper retained the impression of the protruding elements of the block. During the course of the eighteenth century, numerous technical developments permitted prints to be made in multiple colors, embossed, and enhanced with various powdered metals, but the fundamental stages—designing, carving, and printing-remained the same.

The completed print is often identified with the designer's signature and seal printed on the image. But this exclusive credit is misleading, for the successful execution of a print demanded a high level of technical and interpretive proficiency from the block carver and printer as well.

The carver was charged with giving life to a reproduction originally drawn by hand. The challenge of woodblock carving was not merely to mechanically replicate black outlines but to recapture the mood achieved by the artist's brush. Lines were considered expressive of the artist's personality, particularly of his ability to interpret a text visually not only by creating a painting but also by rendering its ideograms with skill. The amount of ink allowed to escape the brush head, quick adjustments of pressure, and sureness of touch yielded endless combinations of bold, hesitant, and lithe lines. For example, the flush, hearty lines in early ink-monochrome works by Hishikawa Moronobu (see pages 38 and 39) effectively convey the confident sensuality of the late-seventeenth-century boudoirs they depict. More than a century later, Kitagawa Utamaro portrayed his courtesans as emotionally complex individuals in an elaborately appointed world (see pages 22 and 86-101 ). The task of the carver, in these widely varying examples, was to render lines that gave appropriate energy to the image.

The printer's role-equally demanding-was to ensure the physical richness and precision of each image by accurately evaluating the converging elements of paper absorbency, the amount and consistency of ink on the block, and the pressure needed to "pull" just the right impression onto the paper. Using a baren (a disk made of coiled string wrapped in bamboo leaves) to apply an even overall pressure of paper against inked block, the printer produced the image. To make a polychrome print, the paper was pressed sequentially on a number of blocks, each cut to print one color; only those segments of the composition to be printed in that color were left raised on the block. Papers made from plant fibers, including mulberry and marsh reeds, offered different nuances of surface and absorbency. Mixing pigments to the desired color, keeping that color consistent through multiple runs, printing one color over another, and maintaining proper alignment, or "registration," in the production were some of the printer's many essential tasks and skills.

Overseeing the production process and imposing his own aesthetic preferences on it was the publisher, who assumed the economic risks and attempted to anticipate or initiate trends.

In 1657 a great fire swept through Edo, and from that destruction the city emerged with forceful vitality. Culturally it still lagged far behind Kyoto and Osaka, but during the last quarter of the seventeenth century that imbalance began to be gradually redressed. During this period artists of the ukiyo-e became known as individuals with distinct characteristics and styles. Hishikawa Moronobu is sometimes called the founder of the ukiyo-e style, although anonymous artists using a similar style preceded him by a generation. Accomplished both as a painter and as a print designer, Moronobu eschewed hand-applied color in his best-known works. His control of composition and his confidence in the expressive potential of rich, black ink on thick, absorbent paper resulted in striking images (pages 38 and 39). His contemporary Sugimura Jihei was a master of similarly forceful monochrome lines; several of his works also reveal his effective and elaborate use of in-painted color (pages 40 and 42).

The exuberant mood of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries is also seen in courtesan portraits by artists of the Kaigetsud_o school. These images, distinctive for their billowing garments, suggest a strong dependence on calligraphy (see page 49). In the last quarter of the seventeenth century, Kabuki finally achieved recognition as a theatrical form. It represented a dynamic new expression of urban culture, not beholden to any particular form of visual representation. The woodblock print, with its potential for publicity and wide distribution, soon replaced painting as the most popular means of depicting this stage world. There were Kabuki theaters in all three of the major cities, but the Kabuki productions in Edo were characterized by a rougher, more bombastic tone than those in Osaka and Kyoto.

The prestigious Ichikawa line of actors was started in this era by Ichikawa Danj_ur_o I. This noted actor as well as successive generations of Danj_ur_os were frequent subjects of woodblock prints. In these early prints the highly developed sense of stage set and costume evident in prints of the late eighteenth century was not yet apparent, and actors are often difficult to distinguish from typical city dwellers.

Publishers soon realized that anything more than cursory in-painting of ink-monochrome prints was time-consuming and expensive. The use of impressed color in two-color prints became popular in the 1740s. Called benizuri-e, these prints used only green and rose, though overlapping pigments could also produce other colors. Achieving exact registration required the precise alignment of the multiple blocks so that lines or colors did not overlap, unless the printer intentionally sought that effect. The finest examples of these prints exude a warm and pleasing tone. Mood, rather than realism, was clearly their desired effect.

The First half of the eighteenth century witnessed the continuing production of standard print subjects and various attempts at novelty by publishers. Interest in the pleasure quarters continued unabated, but Kabuki prints—like the theater form itself—witnessed a decline. From about 1700 through the middle of the century a new form of entertainment-the carefully staged and plotted puppet theater known as Bunraku-was all the rage, particularly in Osaka and Kyoto.

The 1760s revolution in full-color printing excited audiences and initiated new levels of expression that would be realized in the following decades. Indeed, the period from 1765 through the turn of the century is considered the golden age of the woodblock print. Full-color printing necessitated a large audience to absorb production costs, and by the 1770s the critical mass was ready for higher quality. But this revolution began within an elite circle of patrons, under the artistic direction of Suzuki Harunobu. His delicate figures, most often young women, populate a world of refined amusements touched with gentle eroticism (pages 62-71).

In the early 1760s, the study of astronomy-most dramatically supported by the shogun's construction of an observatory in Edo-generated interest in time measurement and in calendars. Although the government monopolized calendar production, private versions were frequently commissioned, such as the one made by Harunobu in 1765 for a highly ranked official in the shogun's retinue. His image for that calendar of a young woman struggling to rescue a drying garment from a sudden shower (page 28) is the earliest-known full-color print, though the print was technically innovative only in the abundance of its skillfully printed colors. Within the print are various ideograms representing the year 1765, disguised as designs on the hanging kimono. The production was no doubt costly, as were all of Harunobu's private commissions; by adroitly taking advantage of luxury-seeking patrons during the 1760s, he created a body of work that set new standards.

Concurrent with the advent of full-color printing was the resurgence of Kabuki, while interest in Osaka- and Kyoto-based Bunraku waned. Kabuki writers learned from tightly crafted Bunraku plots, and Bunraku writers applied their skills to creating new Kabuki plays. In Edo, thanks to the Ichikawa family, Kabuki remained the preferred form of theater. The city slowly emerged as the political, economic, and cultural center of Japan.

Actors as well as their patrons recognized the potential of the full-color print. Two grades of actor prints were marketed: one cheaply printed on thin paper using perhaps four or five colors, and the other a lavish production with as many as a dozen colors on thick paper. The latter is seen at its best in the works created by Katsukawa Shunsh_o and members of his atelier; this school of artists dominated the actor-print genre for three decades.

Other important artists, aided by the useful effects of the polychrome print, created powerful visions of theater and brothel life, offering glimpses of activity beneath the veneer of the floating world. The depiction of idealized female beauty was favored by a succession of designers. Torii Kiyonaga, whose most impressive images date from the 1780s, portrayed fashionable groupings of alert, demure women at leisure, often in promenade (pages 79-85). Although faces are unrevealing, the postures and gestures suggest the moods of these unblemished courtesans. Ch_obunsai Eishi, son of a high-ranking samurai, forsook his comfortable station in life to depict beauties of attenuated elegance and haunting ethereality (pages 102-16 ). Kitagawa Utamaro advanced Kiyonaga's experiments with group composition. In his various series of bust portraits of courtesans (pages 86-91 and 96-99), he elaborated their private moods more effectively than any other printmaker, although his women ultimately remained generic types rather than individuals.

Another printmaker, known only by his signature as T_osh_usai Sharaku, produced an extraordinary body of work, primarily actor prints, during the short period from 1794 to 1795. His renderings of full-figure portraits and large head or bust portraits (pages 230-49) are startlingly bold caricatures, related to but quite distinct from similar subjects by other artists during the period. The brief span of florescence for this powerful talent and the lack of biographical information have resulted in endless speculation, surrounding the beautiful prints with an aura of mystery.

The stately elegance conveyed in the hundreds of images produced during the last quarter of the eighteenth century was, albeit idealized, based on a mature and cohesive culture. As the nineteenth century dawned, that cohesion fractured. Public taste in Kabuki, for example, now demanded raucous action, violence, and explicit sex—perhaps a reflection of social uncertainties or growing political instability. The pleasures of the brothel and theater celebrated in prints came under the careful scrutiny of a nervous government. Publishers reevaluated the tastes of their audience, recognizing that not all members of the print-buying public were avid participants in the pleasure world. Concurrent with the growing interest in the violent, crude, and bawdy was a movement away from the excessive indulgence of the closed world of stage sets and houses of assignation. Interest in landscape prints gradually increased during the First decades of the nineteenth century, and by the 1830s these works exceeded all others in popularity.

Katsushika Hokusai was primarily responsible for introducing the taste for landscape prints. Already a mature and highly respected artist in the 1830s, he had apprenticed in the studio of Katsukawa Shunsh_o. Fiercely independent and eclectic, Hokusai experimented with landscape representation as early as the late eighteenth century. In the early 1830s his celebration of Mount Fuji in a series of thirty-six views (pages 268-70) captured the public imagination. From that point on, he explored the theme of landscape in multiple ways. For example, utilizing the convention of illustrating an ancient anthology of one hundred poems, Hokusai produced a series with diverse views, cleverly relating the contemporary scenes to the ancient text (pages 286-93).

And_o Hiroshige was impressed by the success of Hokusai's Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji and, in 1833-34, produced his monumental Fifty-three Stations of the T_okaid_o (pages 302 and 303 ). This series, based on Hiroshige's sketches made along the major highway from Kyoto to Edo, was clearly intended to satisfy the public's desire to view distant vistas. Near the close of his life, Hiroshige created a series of more than one hundred views of his native Edo (pages 306-8). This collection of innovative perspectives is a loving portrait of the place that a decade later would be known as Tokyo and would soon undergo dramatic physical changes. These two great artists were also successful with other themes, such as birds and flowers-like landscape, a traditional subject in Asian painting.

After the Meiji Restoration of 1868 and the institution of parliamentary government, changes came swiftly for Japan. The movable-type printing press brought mass-circulation newspapers and magazines. Artists who had been primarily painters or print designers now began to find work as illustrators. The slow process of traditional multiple-block printing could not compete with the new commercial illustrations offered daily to a voracious public. Revival movements in the early twentieth century generated prints that recaptured some of the romance and charm of the nineteenth-century masters, but prints soon became a fine art appreciated by only a select few and no longer a vital element in popular culture. Yet as the twentieth century has progressed, new admirers have discovered the woodblock print, and it has become clear that few ventures in visual representation have so consistently and so effectively wedded material and subject. Like the floating world it depicts, the woodblock print rewards the careful viewer with the pleasures of beauty, novelty, and nuance.

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