Japanese woodblock prints date back as far as the eighth century B.C., and the long history of the tradition contributes to resonate with collectors today. To better understand why these works of art are sought after, we sat down with three specialists in Japanese art to talk history, techniques, and factors that determine the value of Japanese woodblock prints.
The Origins of Japanese Woodblock Prints
Woodblock printing, which was a much more labor intensive process than modern printing techniques require, was first used by temple monks to reproduce and disseminate Buddhist texts more efficiently than they could be by hand.
After technological advances in the 18th century enabled printing in full color, woodblock printing as an artistic medium began in earnest. Printmakers who had previously produced monochromatic manuscripts were now able to create polychrome prints and elaborately illustrated calendars for wealthy patrons.
Woodblock Printing Process
While woodblock prints are often attributed to a single artist, the actual prints often represent the combined efforts of four specialists: the designer, the engraver, the printer, and the publisher.
“The process of creating Japanese woodblock prints traditionally was a collaborative effort. The artist, who would have his signature on the finished print, would first execute a drawing or painting which would be the original source for the finished woodblock print,” says Daniel Levitz, owner at Things Japanese Gallery. The engraver then took over and traced the original drawing to create a negative, in a series of woodblocks used for printing. “Sometimes multiple carvers would be used, as many of the designs used multiple blocks,” adds Levitz. Polychromatic prints sometimes required as many as 20 separate woodblocks.
When it came to the actual printing of the piece, yet another artisan was then involved. In fact, there might have even been multiple printers. The printer or printers coated the block and laid a piece of paper on top of the block to generate an impression. The finished print was later distributed for sale by the publisher.
While multiple woodblocks were often used in the printmaking process, that number used does not impact the value of a print. “There are most certainly more complex designs that are successful artistically and commercially. It’s the subject and quality of the design are the most important aspects of a print,” says Levitz.
From the 17th to 19th centuries, the Ukiyo-e school of art flourished in Japan. During this period, the name of which translates to “pictures of the floating world,” many of today’s most renowned Japanese woodblock printers rose to prominence. The late 18th century is considered the golden age of Japanese woodblocks due to the wealth of artistic talent and a shift in popular subject matter.
Woodblock prints of the Edo period (1615-1868) characteristically featured sumo wrestlers, famous Kabuki actors, and geisha performers. In the late 18th century, this style of portraiture declined in popularity, replaced by a demand for romanticized landscapes and depictions of notable historical scenes.
“Popular motifs depict Japanese culture, including female beauties, Samurai warriors, actors, and landscapes,” notes James J. Plumer, Appraiser of Oriental Arts at Alex Cooper. “Japanese woodblock prints that portray Samurai warriors, for one, are increasingly popular at auction,” says Plumer.
Two of the most renowned practitioners of woodcut printing, Utagawa Hiroshige and Katsushika Hokusai, both emerged in the 19th century. Hiroshige is best known for his tranquil and ethereal landscapes, most notably in a series called “The Fifty-Three Stations of the Tokaido.” Hokusai created graphically bold compositions including “Great Wave of Konagawa,” which endures as one of the most celebrated works in the history of Japanese visual art and served as the capstone to a 2015 exhibition of the artist’s body of work at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
Woodblock Printing Artists
Japanese woodblock prints range in value from a few hundred dollars to upwards of $1 million. Exceptional examples by master printmakers like Hiroshige, Hokusai, and Kitagawa Utamaro, which tend to make infrequent appearances on the open market, fetch impressive prices due to their age and rarity. The Hokusai woodblock print “Fugaku sanjurokkei” from “36 views from Fiji,” sold at Sotheby’s in November 2002 for a jaw-dropping €1.4 million. An Utamaro woodblock titled “Fukaku shinobu koi (Deeply Hidden Love)” was sold by French auction house Beaussant Lefèvre in association with Christie’s in June of 2016 for €745,000.
“Today, there is an enormous amount of Japanese woodblock prints available to purchase online, the great majority of which are later editions or reproductions, so there is a lot of excitement when earlier editions come up for sale,” says Brendan B. Ryan, Appraiser and Auctioneer at Butterscotch Auction Gallery.
Factors that Determine Value
The value of woodblock prints is determined by a number of factors, says Ryan, but mostly by rarity and vibrancy of the impression. “Generally speaking, early editions are printed in bright, vivid colors that are very resistant to fading. Certain colors were used at certain times, so it’s important to familiarize yourself with the proper tonalities one would expect. Learning the publisher’s seals is also an important key to identifying early editions.”
Factors that determine the value of woodcut prints include:
Subject matter, he adds, is also key. “In general, landscape scenes are often much more desirable than figural ones, like portraits of kabuki dancers, actresses, and the like.”
Ultimately, the best way to determine quality or worth of a woodblock print, notes Plumer, is to bring it to a museum or auction house expert that specializes in Asian art. Depending on maker and quality, the price of a print could range greatly, so getting a specialist’s opinion is crucial before bidding and buying.
Influence of Japanese Woodblock Prints
Japanese woodblock prints have had a profound impact on the trajectory of visual art in Japan and throughout Western art. Impressionist and Post-Impressionist artists influenced by Japanese printmaking developed an aesthetic called Japonism, which fused traditional European styles with Japanese elements. Early adopters included artists Mary Cassatt, Edgar Degas, Claude Monet, James Tissot and Vincent van Gogh, who incorporated the high-keyed contrasts, flattened perspective, and compositional strategies of Japanese woodblocks into their work.
“Prints from the shin hanga (‘new prints’) movement of the early 20th century are particularly sought after and have a higher probability of being from an early edition than works by 19th-century artists,” says Ryan. “Watanabe is a publisher to look for – he published many of the prints by Hasui and Yoshida, who [alongside Hiroshige] are arguably two of the most collectible printmakers today.”
The influence of Japanese woodblock prints continued throughout the 20th century. Elements of the printing process are evident in the flattened perspective of Pop artist Roy Lichtenstein and explicitly referenced in contemporary artist Jeff Wall’s photograph, “A Sudden Gust of Wind (After Hokusai)” from 1993. The photograph, an edition of which is part of the Tate Modern’s permanent collection, was based on the woodcut by Hokusai titled, “Travellers Caught in a Sudden Breeze at Ejiri,” (1832) from the portfolio “36 views from Fiji.”