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A Brief History of Japanese Prints

Japanese Woodblock Prints or Ukiyo-e (Pictures of the Floating World), came into being in the middle of the 17th Century, at the end of close to a century of feudal wars. Japan then enjoyed the security and the comforts of peace and prosperity. After a time, the middle class with a sudden excess of money but a minimum of freedom began to enjoy the "life of pleasure". Most of their time was spent in brothels and kabuki theatres. They became extravagant in their dress and general life•styles and demanded a representative art form of their own. Thus Ukiyo-e was born, with it's depiction of this decadent, almost hedonistic society. Sensual courtesans dressed in the most popular and stylish costumes were portrayed and dramatic scenes from kabuki plays dominated the subject matter of the prints.

A Japanese Woodblock Print is said to be the work of the designer, but in actuality it is the combined efforts of three separate artisans -- the artist, the woodblock cutter and the printer. A master artist first draws his design which is then pasted down on a finely prepared cherry woodblock. The woodblock cutter follows the lines with a sharp chisel. He uses so much skill and follows the design with such fidelity that the block, when finished, is a work of art. After that, the block is inked and a sheet of dampened paper is laid upon it. The back of the paper is rubbed until the impression is uniformly transferred on to it. This is called the key print. The key print is then returned to the artist who chooses the colors he wants and where he wants them to go. A separate block is carved for every color to be used in the print. The blocks then go to the printer, who, using mulberry paper, rubs natural vegetable dyes on to the blocks and transfers each impression in register with absolute perfection. The mulberry paper alone can take three months to make. It is considered to be one of the finest papers made. With each passing decade the colors sink further into the fibres of the paper giving each print an even richer tone. The high level of technical achievement combined with pure beauty is a wonder to behold.

During this period when Ukiyo-e was evolving as an art form, Japan was virtually cut off from the rest of the world. It wasn't until Admiral Perry came to Japan in 1854 that Japan's doors "were opened" to the other countries. These lovely "images of a floating world" became popular throughout the civilized world. The art world was immediately captured by the vitality, freshness and charm of the woodblock prints. Since their introduction, they have been avidly collected by such notables as Van Gogh, Gauguin Monet, Frank Lloyd Wright and James Michener, to name a few.

Unfortunately, with the ravages of time, war, fire and earthquakes, few of these priceless sheets of beauty have survived. However, those who are lucky enough to possess these lovely images of a life lived long ago, relish them as an invitation into a world of enchantment, a world that becomes a passion in their minds as well as their hearts. Japanese Woodblock Prints are marvels of line, color, and composition. They have a life of their own and are always a joy to behold.

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