Japanese woodblock prints

drawn by Utagawa Hiroshige published in 1831 hundreds of copies remain

drawn by Utagawa Hiroshige
published in 1831
hundreds of copies remain

In this report, I’m going to discuss history of woodblock print regarding why Katsushika Hokusai drew scenery pictures of Mt. Fuji and why he frequently used bluish colors.
There are many categories of woodblock print; actor pictures, satires, beauty pictures, ghost pictures. However, I think of scenery pictures like Thirty-six Views of Mt. Fuji (富嶽三十六景) by Katsushika Hokusai and Fifty-three stations on Tokaido(東海道五十三次) by Utagawa Hiroshige.
Why did these artists publish these scenery pictures? One of the reasons was because of censorship against the publication of woodblock print satires about the Edo shogunate after the Kyoho Reform. Satires are drawings that do not make clear what it is about, but viewers can see what meaning it conveys. Satires were often used to implicitly criticize the ruling class. In other words, the control on publication became stricter. Because of this, many woodblock print artists avoided drawing the pictures of kabuki-actors or caricatures about the Edo shogunate.
Also, after the Kyoho Reform, the Edo shogunate made much more of frugality than ever before, and flashy and gaudy clothing and woodblock prints were censored. In order to avoid censorship, artists tended to avoid reddish colors, which were regarded as flashy and gaudy. For instance, the pictures such as “Beauty looking back(見返り美人)” were drawn in the 17th century when censorship wasn’t very strict, but if it had been drawn in 19th century when censorship was strict, it might have been censored. This phenomenon is called “beni girai(紅嫌い)” or “avoidance against reddish colors.”

Edo Period, 17th century Tokyo National Museum

Edo Period, 17th century
Tokyo National Museum

At that time, merchants became rich, and traveling was becoming popular. Many people in Edo wanted to pay a visit to Ise Jinja Shrine via the Tokaido highway. From Tokaido Highway, Mt. Fuji could be seen. Therefore, Katsushika Hokusai drew pictures of Tokaido highway, and Utagawa Hiroshige drew the pictures of Mt. Fuji. (He drew pictures. He didn’t actually engrave them.)
What was revolutionizing about Utagawa Hiroshige’s woodblock prints was that he used Prussian blue pigment, which had just become available for Japanese artists.  Prussian blue pigment[Fe4[Fe(CN)6]3] was probably synthesized for the first time by the paint maker Diesbach in Berlin around the year 1706. About a century later, in 1807, it was imported to Japan for the first time. However, 60g of Prussian blue pigment was as expensive as one tawara of rice. Around 1826, when Chinese merchants exported to Japan a large amount of excess Prussian blue pigment imported from England, Prussian blue pigment became popular in Japan. It was 1831 when Utagawa Hiroshige drew the famous “Great Wave off Kanagawa.” This Prussian blue pigment is significant since it was the first stable and relatively lightfast blue pigment to be widely used. Japanese painters and woodblock print artists likewise did not have access to a long-lasting blue pigment until Chinese merchants began to export Prussian blue from England to Japan.
What is distinguished about “Great Wave off Kanagawa” was that Hiroshige depicted the waves and Mt. Fuji using almost only Prussian blue pigment in different depths.
Japanese woodblock prints drawn in brilliant Prussian blue whose pigment was synthesized in Germany, later influenced French impressionists and led to Japonism. Europe and Japan have been influencing each other since Edo period.

Comparison of a woodblock print by Hiroshige (left) to its copy painted by van Gogh

Comparison of a woodblock print by Hiroshige (left) to its copy painted by van Gogh


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