Ronin Gallery
Dec 22, 2016 4:37PM

On April 21st 2016, Gallery President David Libertson took a break from the city to deliver a lecture at the College of William & Mary. Held in conjunction with the museum’s current exhibition Hiroshige’s Tokaido, his lecture provided insight into the art of collecting Japanese woodblock prints. Titled “Collecting and Connoisseurship: A History of Japanese Woodblock Prints,” the lecture delved into the history of collecting ukiyo-e, from a survey of ukiyo-e development, to how to evaluate a print, to how to spot a fake. For those of you who couldn’t make it down to Virginia, catch up on what you missed in the three part blog series Collecting and Connoisseurship!

Map of Edo from the Koka era (1844-1848). Image: The University of Texas Libraries.

The history of collecting of ukiyo-e begins with the history of prints themselves. Originating in China, woodblock printmaking arrived in Japan with Buddhism during the 6th century. While the process was primarily used to produce and disseminate Buddhist scripture for centuries, the unique social culture of the 17thcentury welcomed a renaissance for woodblock printmaking. At the turn of the century, Tokugawa Ieyasu unified the warring feudal lords of Japan under a military government, the Tokugawa Shogunate. Though the emperor remained on his throne in Kyoto, ruling power lay with the shogun in Edo, the Eastern Capital. The city of Edo bloomed with a vital, urban culture during this period, aptly known as the Edo Period (1603-1868). A policy of sankin kotai, or alternate attendance, required daimyo, or regional lords, to split their time between their provincial homes and Edo, creating a persistent flow of consumers into the city. Though the merchant class flourished, they remained locked within their low standing due to Japan’s strict social stratification. Barred from samurai culture, the chonin, or townspeople, developed their own culture known as the “floating world.” This realm focused on earthly pleasures, revolving around the kabuki theaters and the Yoshiwara, Edo’s legalized prostitution district. These venues provided a rare opportunity where the classes could intermingle. Woodblock prints quickly became the medium of this pleasure culture.

Eisen, Applying Lip Rouge-Hachiman Shrine at Fukagaw, c.1838. Image: Ronin Gallery

Ukiyo-e, or pictures of the floating world, emerged around 1660 with monochrome prints and a tendency toward the erotic. The masters of this “primitive” period, such as Moronobu and Masanobu, are known for their elegant and vital lines. By 1700, the first early color prints emerged. Hand colored with vegetable-based pigments, this process proved costly and was replaced by full color printing in 1765. Known as the father of color printing, Harunobu ushered in the era of nishiki-e, or brocade pictures, with sensitivity and subtlety. In the Golden Age of ukiyo-e (late 18th century through 1810), nishiki-e not only developed in their use of color, but also shifted in their approach to subject matter. Sharaku began to portray actors as individuals rather than roles, while Utamaro delved deeper into the “greenhouses” of the Yoshiwara, considering the private lives of courtesans. As the Tenpo Reforms forbid the depictions of Edo’s brightest stars in the mid-19th century, meisho-e, or famous place pictures, eagerly filled the gap. With the easing of travel restrictions in the 1850s, landscape prints, such as those by Hokusai and Hiroshige, fueled a national wanderlust. Alongside meisho-e, legendary prints and musha-e, or warrior prints, sidestepped the Tenpo restrictions. As the Tokugawa Shogunate weakened, anti-authoritarian legends gained popularity. After the fall of the shogunate and the rise of the Meiji Emperor in the early 20th century, woodblock printmaking became a medium of politicization and propaganda. Western clothing and inventions spoke to the rapid modernization avidly encouraged by the emperor. Dramatic scenes from the Sino-Japanese and Russo-Japanese Wars expounded Japan’s military might.

Moronobu, One Night of Adoration, c. 1680. Image: Ronin Gallery.

Kiyotsune, Two Lovers, c. 1760. Image: Ronin Gallery.

Harunobu, Autumn, c. 1786. Image: Ronin Gallery.

While the woodblock print evolved significantly over nearly three centuries, its original collectors were primarily common people from the beginning. With the exception of surimono, (lavishly printed, privately commissioned works) and special edition printings, full-color oban prints could be purchased for the price of lunch. Sets such as 36 Views of Mt. Fuji and 100 views of Edo encouraged buyers to assemble a full set, while yakusha-e, or actor prints, were collected as souvenirs of kabuki plays. As the printed vehicle of popular culture, the longevity of a print’s display depended on the popularity of the subject. With this frequent turn around, woodblock prints were ephemera in their original context, enjoyed and collected, but affordable and sensitive to cultural tides.

Sharaku, Sawamura Sojuro as Nagoya Sanza and Segawa Kikunojo as Katsuragi, c. 1794. Image: Ronin Gallery.

Hokusai, Under the Mannen Bridge at Fukagawa, c. 1829-1833. Image: Ronin Gallery.

Kuniyoshi, Taira Ghosts Attacking Yoshitsune in Daimotsu Bay, 1849-1852. Image: Ronin Gallery.

Kiyochika, Braving the Bitter Cold, Camp at Yingkou, 1895. Image: Ronin Gallery.

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