Woodblock prints are an integral part of Japanese art and culture in the centuries gone past. In many ways, the techniques of craft and reproduction that were pioneered and mastered by the Japanese were more advanced than what their European contemporaries were able to achieve. Although woodblock prints were in circulation as early as the eighth century A.D., it was only since the 17th century that they reached their peak creative expression. Woodblock prints spanning the entire millennia have served a crucial cultural purpose in Japan, as they were second only to the oral tradition in propagating folklore, history and customs of the people. Not only were the woodblock prints a source of entertainment and enchantment, they were also vital to the propagation of Buddhist philosophy and art. (Priest, 1959) As a consequence, the evolution of Zen Buddhism in Japan is neatly documented in this medium of art. The rest of this essay will analyze two Japanese woodblock prints – taken one each from The Seattle Museum of Asian Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art respectively – and study their similarities and differences in the backdrop of the evolution of the technique.
The two woodblock prints chosen for this essay are – Crow and Heron (Young Lovers Walking Under an Umbrella in a Snowstorm, ca. 1769) and Two Ladies Looking Through a Telescope (Hokusai, 19th century) – from the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Seattle Museum of Asian Art respectively. The Crow and Heron was created by Suzuki Harunobu and is made of woodcut print on paper. This print carries many typical characteristics of the art and cultural sensibilities of the period. Firstly, chivalry being a cherished virtue in high Japanese society, the man is shown to hold the umbrella for his lover. The demureness and shyness of the lady is complemented by the glitter and passion in the eyes of her beloved. The robes worn by the lovers further accentuate this complementariness. The dark brown shades of the man’s robes align and merge with the soft white robe of the lady. The tresses and folding of their robes form a unified pattern. (Meech, 1982)
Japanese woodblock prints reveal much information about the social structures and cultural norms of corresponding eras. They also show the signature styles of various artists. The Crow and Heron print shows the
“rise of the wealthy chonin and their interest in elegant clothes, pleasurable pastimes, and the arts, especially woodblock prints. Harunobu depicted beautiful women being slender and graceful. He did not individualize his figures, but presented them as idealized images without unique features”. (http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/works-of-art/JP2453, 2006)