Japanese woodblock prints date back as far as the eighth century BC. The printmaking process, which was much more labor intensive than modern techniques, was initially used by temple monks to reproduce and disseminate Buddhist texts more efficiently than they could be by hand.
After technological advances in the 18th century enabled printing in full color, woodblock printing as an artistic medium began in earnest. Printmakers who had previously produced monochromatic manuscripts were now able to create polychrome prints and elaborately illustrated calendars for wealthy patrons.
Despite the occasional hefty price tag, collectors around the world continue to appreciate the timeless and captivating beauty of Japanese woodblocks. To help us better understand why these fascinating works of art are so highly sought after, James J. Plumer, Appraiser of Oriental Arts at Alex Cooper, Brendan B. Ryan, Appraiser and Auctioneer at Butterscotch Auction Gallery, and Daniel Levitz, owner at Things Japanese Gallery took us further into the history, techniques, and valuation of Japanese woodblock prints.
Across the market, Japanese woodblock prints range in value from a few hundred dollars to upwards of a million. Exceptional works by master printmakers like Utagawa Hiroshige, Katsushika Hokusai, and Kitagawa Utamaro, which tend to make infrequent appearances on the open market, fetch impressive prices due to their age and rarity. The Hokusai woodblock print,”Fugaku sanjurokkei,” from “36 views from Fiji,” sold at Christie’s in 2002 for a whopping $1.47 million. An Utamaro woodblock titled “Fukaku shinobu koi” sold at the French auction house Beaussant & Lefèvre in June of 2016 for $675,000.
“Today, there is an enormous amount of Japanese woodblock prints available to purchase online, the great majority of which are later editions or reproductions, so there is a lot of excitement when earlier editions come up for sale,” says Ryan.
The Printing Process
While woodblock prints are often attributed to a single artist, the artworks typically represent the combined efforts of four specialists: designer, engraver, printer, and publisher.
“The process of creating Japanese woodblock prints traditionally was a collaborative effort. The artist, who would have his signature on the finished print, would first execute a drawing or painting which would be the original source for the finished woodblock print,” says Levitz. The engraver then took over and traced the original drawing to create a negative, in a series of woodblocks used for printing. “Sometimes multiple carvers would be used, as many of the designs used multiple blocks,” adds Levitz. Polychromatic prints sometimes required as many as twenty separate woodblocks.
When it came to the actual printing of the piece, yet another artisan would be involved. In fact, there might have even been multiple printers. The printer or printers coated the block and laid a piece of paper on top of the block to generate an impression. The finished print was later distributed for sale by the publisher.
While multiple woodblocks were often used in the printmaking process, that number used does not impact the value of a print. “There are most certainly more complex designs that are successful artistically and commercially. It’s the subject and quality of the design are the most important aspects of a print,” says Levitz.
Masters of the Genre
Throughout the 17th through 19th centuries, the “Ukiyo-e” genre of art flourished in Japan. During this period, which translates to “pictures of the floating world,” many of today’s most renowned Japanese woodblock printers rose to popularity. The late 18th century is considered the golden age of Japanese woodblocks, owing to the wealth of artistic talent and a shift in subject matter. Woodblock prints of the Edo period (1615-1868) characteristically featured sumo wrestlers, famous Kabuki actors, and geisha performers. Toward the end of the 18th century, this kind of portraiture declined in popularity, replaced by a demand for romanticized landscapes and depictions of notable historical scenes.
“Popular motifs depict Japanese culture, including female beauties, Samurai warriors, actors, and landscapes,” notes Plumer. “Japanese woodblock print that portray Samurai warriors, for one, are increasingly popular at auction,” says Plumer.
Perhaps the two most renowned practitioners of the woodcut, Hiroshige and Hokusai, emerged in the 19th century. Hiroshige created tranquil and ethereal landscapes, most notably in a series called “The Fifty-Three Stations of the Tokaido.” Hokusai created graphically bold compositions including “Great Wave of Konagawa,” which endures as one of the most celebrated works in the history of Japanese visual art.
A Contemporary Legacy
Woodblock prints have had a profound influence on the trajectory of the visual arts in Japan and throughout the West. Impressionist painters influenced by Japanese printmaking developed an aesthetic called Japonism, which fused traditional European styles with Japanese elements. Artists including Edgar Degas, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, and Vincent van Gogh incorporated the high-keyed contrasts, flattened perspective, and compositional strategies of Japanese woodblocks into their work.
“Prints from the shin hanga (‘new prints’) movement of the early 20th century are particularly sought after and have a higher probability of being from an early edition than works by 19th-century artists,” says Ryan. “Watanabe is a publisher to look for – he published many of the prints by Hasui and Yoshida, who [alongside Hiroshige] are arguably two of the most collectible printmakers today.”
The influence of Japanese woodblock prints continued throughout the 20th century and into the present day. Elements are evident in the flattened perspective of Pop artist Roy Lichtenstein and explicitly referenced in contemporary artist Jeff Wall’s photograph, “A Sudden Gust of Wind (After Hokusai)” from 1993. The photograph, an edition of which is part of the Tate Modern’s permanent collection, was based on the woodcut by Hokusai titled “Travellers Caught in a Sudden Breeze at Ejiri” (1832) from the portfolio “36 views from Fiji.”
Value in woodblock prints is determined by a number of factors, says Ryan, but mostly by rarity and vibrancy of the impression. “Generally speaking, early editions are printed in bright, vivid colors that are very resistant to fading. Certain colors were used at certain times, so it’s important to familiarize yourself with the proper tonalities one would expect. Learning the publisher’s seals is also an important key to identifying early editions.”
Subject matter, he adds, is also key. “In general, landscape scenes are often much more desirable than figural ones, like portraits of kabuki dancers, actresses, and the like.”
Ultimately, the best way to determine quality or worth of a woodblock print, notes Plumer, is to bring it to a museum or auction house expert that specializes in oriental art. Depending on maker and quality, the price of a print could range greatly, so getting a specialist’s take is often crucial before bidding and buying.