Japanese print artists devised many delightful strategies to depict the clear and flowing element of water using unyielding blocks of wood. As in nature, water could supply both uplifting and threatening backdrops. It could create tranquility and balance for landscape artists like Hiroshige, or amplify violence for heroic battle scenes for artists like Kuniyoshi.
For landscape artists, Prussian Blue, imported from Europe in the early 19th century, created a new world of blue water possibility, especially for the great artists Hokusai and Hiroshige. In this Hokusai print from 1835, we see steam rising in an innovative way, and only a swipe of blue pigment and the outlines of the cormorants indicate that they are supported by water. Stylization and abstraction appear in many novel and delightful ways. Waves often look alive, topped by “fingers” as in this depiction of Naruto Whirlpools, Awa Province, 1855. Kuniyoshi would use water to heighten the drama of a scene, as in this scene of an outlaw from the Suikoden exploding from the water, ca 1827. Yoshitoshi’s 1873 masterpiece of the hero Benkei attacking a giant carp shows the dreamlike beauty before the violence, the currents depicted using geometric lines of color. The bold and violent current in this 1886 Yoshitoshi diptych of Omatsu raising her knife for the strike amplifies the drama of the scene, the internal violence about to be unleashed on her victim. This rare work by Charles W. Bartlett ca. 1919 was published by Watanabe Shôzaburô, the visionary who brought Japanese printmaking into the 20th century. The ocean is vast, mysterious and beautiful, contrasting with the tensed anticipation of the poised hunter. The mastery of the printers as well as the carvers cannot be overstated, and the system supporting the many years of apprenticeship to learn these crafts has largely disappeared.