Hokusai, Woodblock Printing and the Art of Ukiyo-e

“The Great Wave off Kanagawa,” from the collection “Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji.” Image courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

I spotted this spellbinding image a few days ago. I sat gaping at my screen; I think I was waiting for the waves to crash down and destroy the boats. Then I noticed the mountain incongruously peeking out from behind the action. I thought I recognized Mount Fuji’s distinctive cone. I did a little googling and discovered I was right. Several hours of research later and I knew all sorts of stuff I somehow never learned before. I’ll share it with you now.

A wood block used for a ukiyo-e print in 1830, from Wiki Commons.

Japanese artist Hokusai produced this work around 1830 using woodblock printing, a process that stretches back to 7th century China. In woodblock printing, an artisan cuts a design on a wood block in relief, with the areas to receive ink left raised and the rest cut away. Think of a rubber stamp with its raised lettering. The color is transferred by pressing the block against paper or cloth. In 17th century Japan, an artform developed around woodblock printing called Ukiyo-e that came to define the culture surrounding the capital city of Edo (present-day Tokyo).

Ukiyo translates as “floating world” or “floating life.” Prosperity throughout Japan rose during the 17th century, but the people lived according to strict norms of self-control, personal appearance, and social order. The feudal Tokugawa shogunate ruled as a military dictatorship and demanded hard work and obedience from everyone. By 1700, Japan was the most urbanized country in the world, and those who could afford to escape (or float away from) their structured lives for the moment and attend the theatre or a musical performance, even houses of prostitution, were free to do so. Ukiyo-e portrayed the performers in idealized fashion.

In the 1760s, printmakers perfected the ability to create prints with up to 20 colors by using different woodblocks for every hue. Artists advanced Ukiyo-e further in the following decades as they expanded beyond entertainers to portray historical figures, flora and fauna, everyday people living their lives, and landscapes. The greatest pioneer in the evolution of Ukiyo-e was Hokusai.

“Watching Fireworks in the Cool of the Evening at Ryôgoku Bridge,” produced by Hokusai in 1790. Image courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Scholars credit artists like Hokusai with creating their works, but there’s more to the story. The process of Ukiyo-e demanded cooperation among several artisans. Hokusai conceived and drew the details of his idea on a thin sheet of paper. A carver then glued the paper to a wooden block and used a knife to trace along and etch a different part of the design onto each block. Several blocks were necessary, one for every color. The printer continued the process by applying various inks to the blocks and pressing them onto the final surface. Hokusai controlled the process and disputed any deviation from his vision by the carvers or printers.

Hokusai’s talent earned him fame over the following decades, especially after 1820. He created several print anthologies during this time, including Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji, A Tour of the Waterfalls in the Provinces, and Oceans of Wisdom. I’ve included selections from these and other series below.

Hokusai’s most famous work is The Great Wave off Kanagawa, which highlights his lifelong obsession with both threatening waves and Mount Fuji. In Japanese culture, Mount Fuji represents perfection, like the symmetry of an inverted fan. It symbolizes the enduring strength of the nation and the people. Gigantic waves to an island people can be quite terrifying, but the fishermen in these boats are remaining calm and disciplined. If the boats in back follow the one in front as it steers a course around the great wave, they will once again pull through.

Enjoy the prints I’ve included below. Those from “Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji” are produced from woodblocks created in 1930 from Hokusai’s original prints.

“South Wind, Clear Sky,” from “Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji” on Wiki Commons.

“Tenma Bridge in Setsu Province,” from the series “Remarkable Views of Bridges in Various Provinces” on Wiki Commons.

“Ono Waterfall at the Kisokaido,” from “A Tour of the Waterfalls of the Provinces” on Wiki Commons.

“Fishing in the Miyato River,” from “Oceans of Wisdom” on Wiki Commons.

“Lightnings Below the Summit,” from “Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji” on Wiki Commons.

“Tenpōzan at the Mouth of the Aji River in Settsu Province,” from the series “Remarkable Views of Bridges in Various Provinces,” courtesy of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

“Kirifuri Waterfall Near Kurokami Mountain,” from “A Tour of the Waterfalls of the Provinces” on Wiki Commons.

“Inume Pass in the Kai Province,” from “Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji” on Wiki Commons.

“Fuji viewed from rice fields in Owari Province,” from “Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji” on Wiki Commons.

“Whaling off Goto,” from “Oceans of Wisdom” on Wiki Commons.
“Kajikazawa in Kai Province,” from “Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji” on Wiki Commons.

“Ushibori in Hitachi Province,” from “Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji” on Wiki Commons.

“Fly-fishing,” from “Oceans of Wisdom” on Wiki Commons.

“Mount Fuji seen from the tea plantation at Katakura in Suruga Province,” from “Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji” on Wiki Commons.

“The Fuji seen from Kanaya on the Tokaido,” from “Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji” on Wiki Commons.

“Waterfall at Aoi Hill,” from “A Tour of the Waterfalls of the Provinces” on Wiki Commons.

“A group of mountaineers (climbing Mount Fuji),” from “Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji” on Wiki Commons.

“Lake Suwa in Shinano Province,” from “Rare Views of Famous Landscapes” on Wiki Commons.

Poem by Abe no Nakamaro,” from the series “One Hundred Poems Explained by the Nurse,” from The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Abe no Nakamaro composed his poem in China more than a thousands years earlier, when he longed to return to his home in Japan:

It might be the moon that shone
above Mount Mikasa in Nara
that I see in this faraway land
when now I look
across the vast fields of the stars.

Works Cited

“A Tour of the Waterfalls of the Provinces (article and collection of prints).” Wikipedia.

“Edo Period.” Wikipedia.

“Explore the Collection: Ukiyo-e.” Minneapolis Institute of Arts.

“Hokusai.” Wikipedia.

“Katsushika Hokusai (collection of prints).” The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

“Oceans of Wisdom (article and collection of prints).” Wikipedia.

“Shogun.” Wikipedia.

“Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji (article and collection of prints).” Wikipedia.

“Ukiyo-e.” Wikipedia.

“Woodblock Printing.” Wikipedia.

“Woodblock Printing in Japan.” Wikipedia.

“Woodblock Prints in the Ukiyo-e Style.” Department of Asian Art, Metropolitan Museum of Art. Oct 2003.

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