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Carving a New Aesthetic

Samantha Edgley looks at one of the most recognisable and iconic pieces of Japanese art - 'The Great Wave'
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Carving a New Aesthetic: Japanese Ukiyo-e Woodcut Prints

Samantha Edgley
23rd Jun 2016
By Samantha Edgley

A team of volunteers are working with our Specialist Japanese Cataloguer on the Maidstone Museum Japanese Collections Project, kindly funded by UEA and SISJAC. This is one of the aspects of Japanese culture that one of the volunteers, Sam Edgley, has found particularly interesting during the project.

One of the most recognisable and iconic pieces of Japanese art is ‘The Great Wave’. This artwork, created by Hokusai around 1829-32, was part of a series of prints entitled the ‘36 Views of Mount Fuji’. Maidstone Museum is fortunate to own one of the original prints of this masterpiece and it is currently on display in the permanent collection.

The Great Wave is perceived as being an exemplary piece of Ukiyo-e art. The name Ukiyo-e can be translated as meaning ‘pictures of the floating world’ and is a style of Japanese woodcut print which flourished during the Edo period (1615-1868). Ukiyo-e prints depict a range of different subject matters, but initially it celebrated (and consequently immortalised) some of the actors, famous beauties, and courtesans of the time. The term ‘floating world’ was used to describe the temporary nature of this life, and the focus upon the world of Kabuki theatre and prostitution displayed aspects that floated outside the traditional and respectable aspects of culture.

Other forms of popular prints included Fukeiga (landscape) and Meisho-e (pictures of famous places), the subject matter of ‘The Great Wave’ can consequently be seen as an example of both of these – it is a landscape image depicting the famous place of Mount Fuji. However, as time has gone by, the word Ukiyo-e is now used as an umbrella term for the style of woodblock print rather than subject matter, and therefore ‘The Great Wave’ is most commonly described as being a Ukiyo-e image.

When we think of Ukiyo-e prints, we instinctively consider the main designer of the piece; for example, Hokusai’s name is rightfully synonymous with ‘The Great Wave’. However, it is important to acknowledge that a team of people were behind each print. In general, four people would have been instrumental in creating each image. For this reason the term the ‘Ukiyo-e quartet’ was used to describe the collaboration. In addition to the artist who created the image (the designer), there would also be a publisher who had overall responsibility for the project, the wood cutter, and the printer.

The colours and subtle tones of each print would be built up gradually by creating additional woodblocks for the image. It was an intricate job and the wood cutter had to be extremely skilled to ensure the desired effect was achieved and that the different blocks could match up exactly to ensure overall coherence. Once these had been created, the printer could create a number of images from each set of blocks. For this reason the cost to buy a print was considerably less than to buy a one off original artwork. This in turn can be seen as a step in the direction of democratising the acquisition of art.

The distinctive quality of Ukiyo-e prints includes the delicacy of mark, the flatness of the image, and the bold image outlines. These characteristics can be seen as being markedly different to the western art of the time. Since the Renaissance, a strong focus in Western Art has been upon creating the pictorial illusion of a 3D space within the flat 2D canvas space. The Italian artist Uccello (1397-1475) is often described as being the pioneer of visual perspective in art, and his discoveries on the subject were adopted by those who followed. Depth of field and ‘truth to nature’ led the way. With time, these ideas were gradually challenged.

By the 1860s, Western artists became more aware of the beauty of Japanese art, due to the import of relatively inexpensive Japanese woodcut prints. Artist’s such as Degas, Van Gogh, and Manet were greatly moved by Japanese art and particularly the style of Ukiyo-e prints. This had an impact not only upon the development of their own oeuvres, but consequently on the trajectory of western modern art. It became apparent that different approaches could match the established qualities of traditional Western art, thereby redefining how artists and appreciators considered art.

A rejection for creating illusionistic 3D perspectives became central to Western 20th-century art. The work of Pollock and Rothko was celebrated by the art critic Clement Greenberg for its ‘medium specificity’ (staying true to the qualities that are unique to that specific medium). With regards to painting, artists that celebrated (rather than disguising) the flatness of the 2D surface of canvas or paper, and which highlighted the materials utilised upon it, were able to create a powerful contemporary style. The art of the Expressionists was influenced by their predecessors – the likes of Van Gogh and Manet broke with tradition to create their masterpieces. Their willingness to challenge the artistic status quo was greatly inspired by the beauty and expressive qualities they found in the Ukiyo-e prints that continue to engage and inspire artists today.