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The Artistry of Woodblock Prints

Posted on May 6, 2020 at 4:00 PM by Sarah Bartlett

Contemplate Japan, the exhibition at the Brunnier Art Museum (currently closed for COVID-19) includes a variety of objects including sculpture, ceramics, baskets, kimono, festival dolls, and woodblock prints.

Japanese woodblock prints are often labeled as made by a particular artist, however the print likely went through many hands before it was complete. Prints were first designed by an artist. The design was then passed on to a block cutter, who carved the design into the multiple wood blocks used to transfer the design to the paper. Each block would be used for a specific color or effect dictated by the design and often up to 15 colors would be needed for one print. 

The finished blocks were then given to a printer, where the appropriate colored ink  was applied to the block and then printed onto paper. The last stop would be a publisher, who most likely initiated the entire process by hiring the artist, block cutter, and printer. The publisher then sold the prints. The names that appear on the prints are usually those of the publisher and the original artist; despite the fact that the publisher is the one who arguably does the least amount of work. 

The men who get the credit for Contemplate Japan's signature print, are Ezaki-ya Kichibei and Kitagawa Utamaro. Ezaki-ya Kichibei was the publisher and Utamaro is known as one of the masters of Japanese print making in the late 1700's.  Many of Utamaro's images were portraits of women, capturing their private lives. 

In the exhibition's signature print, Arihara of Tsuru-ya, Utamaro has skillfully depicted a women practicing the art of Ikebana floral arrangement. The box in the top left corner of the print seemingly displays her thoughts of her children participating in one of the more than 200,000 Japanese festivals.

IMAGE: Recent Acquisition: Celebrating the Boy's Festival: Comparing Flowers to the Five Celebrations (gosetsu no Hana Awase) - Arihara of Tsuru-ya, 1801-1803 by Kitagawa Utamaro. Woodblock print. Purchased by University Museums with funds from the Joyce Brewer Art Acquisition Fund. In the permanent collection, University Museums, Iowa State University, Ames, Iowa. UM2019.140

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