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Japanese woodblock printing: a craft of precision - British Museum

The British Museum

Exhibition preview

THE latest Asahi Shimbun Display, Japanese woodblock printing: a craft of precision, can be seen in Room 3 at the British Museum from May 25 to July 16, 2017.

Japanese woodblock printing is a traditional craft still widely practiced today. This Asahi Shimbun Display focuses on the workshops of the master block cutter and master printer to reveal the roots of the craft in Japanese prints of the Edo period (1615-1868).

The display focuses on a print triptych by Utagawa Kunisada (1786 – 1864), which shows how Japanese woodblock prints were traditionally made.

Also on display will be a rare brush drawing that Katsushika Hokusai (1760- 1849) prepared for a print, and a beautiful example of ‘Sudden Shower at Shōno’ from the series Fifty-three Stations along the Tōkaidō Highway by Utagawa Hiroshige (1797-1858).

The Hokusai brush drawing is extremely rare. A print artist’s original preparatory drawing was usually pasted face down on the woodblock and destroyed as the master block cutter cut through it with a chisel to transfer the outlines of the design to the block. Absolute precision was then required to remove excess wood and leave behind only the network of fine raised lines that printed the outlines of the design. For details such as strands of hair and the contours of a face, the master had to cut in a single motion.

Block cutting was a specialist craft, and apprentices started their training at an early age.

Kunisada’s triptych shows a master cutter transferring the lines of a drawing on to a woodblock, while an apprentice clears larger areas of wood from other blocks. Elsewhere we see a master printer taking a break while others prepare sheets of paper for printing. A senior printer is brushing the paper with sizing to strengthen it and control how fast it will absorb the printing ink. Handmade from mulberry fibre, this resilient Japanese paper is able to withstand printing on multiple woodblocks, each adding a different colour.

The colours in Japanese prints come from pigments derived sometimes from plants, such as safflower for red, and sometimes from minerals. Since the late 1820s, Japanese printers have also been using the synthetic pigment Prussian blue, first imported from Europe. Master printers combined a few basic pigments and inks to create a range of colours according to the artist’s design, and they were skilled with special effects.

For example, through shading or gradation, a printer could convey a sense of spatial depth and suggest weather conditions, such as rain or mist. To produce this effect, the printer wets the block, applies ink, and then partially wipes the block before printing. No two examples of gradation are exactly the same. The road in Hiroshige’s print ‘Sudden Shower at Shōno’ is an exquisite example of skilful shading.

The display also includes authentic Japanese woodblock carving tools, printing tools and a carved woodblock generously loaned by Takahashi Yukiko and the craftspeople of the Tokyo Traditional Woodblock Print Association for inclusion in the Asahi Shimbun Display.

This display encourages a deeper appreciation for the craft behind all Japanese woodblock prints, but especially Katsushika Hokusai’s iconic ‘Great Wave’ of c. 1831, which is featured in the major temporary exhibition, Hokusai: beyond the Great Wave (May 25 to August 13, 2017), supported by Mitsubishi Corporation.

Admission: Free.

Times: Saturday to Thursday from 10am to 5.30pm; Fridays from 10am to 8.30pm.

Related public programme

Live woodblock printing by Takahashi Atelier – on Friday, June 2 from 4pm to 5.30pm, Great Court. Free, just drop in

A live woodblock printing demonstration at the Museum, conducted by Takahashi Yukiko and Sōda Noriyasu.

Creating woodblock prints: a view from the ‘floating world’ – on Tuesday, June 27 at 1.15pm, Room 3. Free, just drop in.

Gallery talk by Alfred Haft, British Museum

The miracle of traditional Japanese woodblock printmaking – on Wednesday, July 12 at 1.15pm, Room 3. Free, just drop in.

Gallery talk by Tim Clark, British Museum.

Also at the British Museum: The American Dream: pop to the present, the UK’s first major exhibition to chart modern and contemporary American printmaking (until June 18, 2017).

British Museum, Great Russell Street, London, WC1B 3DG