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Japanese Prints of the Edo Period

DATES October 13, 1970 through January 10, 1971
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  • October 1, 1970 The delicate color and superb line of the Japanese Print is currently on exhibition at the Museum for the first time in more than three decades. Chosen from the Museum’s outstanding collection, Japanese Prints from the Edo Period (about 1657-1867) includes more than seventy rare, early impressions by such masters of the woodblock as Hiroshige, Hokusai and Harunobu.

    Woodblock printing in Japan reached unparalleled artistic achievement with the prints of the Ukiyo-e School of the Edo period. With the growing concentration of population in urban areas and a rising economy, a new freedom of expression and life-style emerged in Tokyo (then called Edo). This is the life-style chronicled in these prints of the Ukiyo or ‘floating world.’

    " only for the moment, turning our full attention to the pleasures of the moon, the snow, the cherry-blossoms and the maple-leaves, singing songs, drinking wine, and diverting ourselves just in floating, floating...this is what we call ‘ukiyo’..."

    From Tales Of The Floating World, Asai Ryoi, 1661

    (Through January 10, 1971)

    [reproduction of print detail]

    KITAGAWA UTAMARO (1753-1806) Detail
    Dressing a Boy on the Occasion of His First Letting His Hair Grow

    Brooklyn Museum Archives. Records of the Department of Public Information. Press releases, 1953 - 1970. 1970, 024.
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  • October 13, 1970 The woodblock prints of the Ukiyo-e school of the Edo Period (about 1657-1867) represent the culmination and fusion of several long traditions of secular and religious printing. During this period, economic and social changes which had taken place in the late sixteenth century made possible the development of a new way of life marked by relative peace, economic prosperity, the growth of the cities and the rise of a middle or merchant class. City life, with the concentration of large portions of the population in urban areas, and a rising economy necessarily led to a relaxation of the absolute control of the ruling class and created a new although unauthorized freedom of expression. With these changes, a new sense of life and a new lifestyle emerged.

    Ukiyo or “floating world” was originally a Buddhist term expressing a pessimistic view of the transcience and insecurity of earthly life. It was redefined, however, by Asai Ryoi in his TALES OF THE FLOATING WORLD (1661) as follows: only for the moment, turning our full attention to the pleasures of the moon, the snow, the cherry-blossoms and the maple-leaves, singing songs, drinking wine, and diverting ourselves just in floating, floating, caring not a whit for the pauperism staring us in the face, refusing to be disenheartened, like a gourd floating along with the river current: this is what we call ukiyo...

    This is the life chronicled by the ukiyo-e or “pictures of the floating world." Few artists have captured and distilled so well these fleeting moments of pleasure to their particular essence of mood, the ambiance of a certain time of day or season, the exact feel of a favorite landscape or the quiet execution of a familiar daily task. In these prints, we see the full range and color of city living, in the portraits of popular courtesans and favorite actors, scenes of crowded theatres and tea-houses, the brothels of the Yoshiwara district, and, more intimately, in genre scenes of the home, the dressing room, the garden, the interiors of the pleasure houses.

    Produced cheaply and sold for pennies on the street, ukiyo-e was an art form conceived for and purchased by the populace, without aristocratic pretension or any thought of high art. The brilliance of their designs, however, the elegant and economic play of line, space and color, the subtleties of coloring and the astonishing technical achievements in their production make them fine works of art at any price.

    The earliest ukiyo-e were already common in the late seventeenth century. These early prints were executed only in sumi, an ink made from lampblack, and were known as sumi-e or “ink pictures” (nos. 42, 48 and 49).* Eventually, color was added by hand, whether by artist or owner and at what time, is not certain. The pigments most often used in this hand-coloring were tan (red lead) and yellow. Early in the eighteenth century, the decorative quality of the prints was enhanced by the use of another red coloring, beni, an extraction from the safflower; the use of a mixture of lacquer and sumi to produce a more lustrous black; and the addition of gold dust or brass filings and embossing to certain areas of the design (nos. 3, 4, and 27).

    Masanobu is traditionally credited with producing the first true-color print or benizuri-e around 1741 (nos. 46 and 47). This is referred to as the first true-color print because each color was added to the print by separate blocks rather than by hand. The predominant colors in these prints are red and green.

    The last development in ukiyo-e prints was the production of the full-color print, traditionally attributed to Harunobu around 1764. These prints are known as nishiki-e or “brocade pictures” because of their many rich colors. It is doubtful that their development was the work of one man[,] although Harunobu, represented in this exhibition by eight prints (nos. 5-12), was one of the leaders in this technique.

    The design of figurative prints began to decline steadily soon after the beginning of the nineteenth century. The last great flourishing of the Edo Period is found in the evocative landscapes of Hokusai and Hiroshige.

    An inquiry into the methods of producing ukiyo-e is a fascinating study in its own right apart from purely aesthetic considerations. These graceful and seemingly effortless prints are the product of an advanced technique in woodblock printing that has as yet never been surpassed. They represent the careful craftsmanship of many hands.

    *Numbers cited in the Introduction refer only to the Checklist.


    Kondo, Ichitaro. Japanese Genre Painting.
    Translated by Roy Andrew Miller
    (Tokyo and Rutland, Vt., Charles E. Tuttle Co., 1961)

    Ledoux, Louis V. An Essay on Japanese Prints.
    (New York, The Japan Society, 1938)

    Michener, James A. The Floating World.
    (New York, Random House, 1954)

    Narazaki, Muneshige. The Japanese Print: Its Evolution and Essence.
    (Tokyo and Palo Alto, Calif., Kodansha International, 1966)

    Stern, Harold P. Master Prints of Japan.
    (New York, Harry N. Abrams, 1969)

    Turk, Frank A. The Prints of Japan.
    (New York, October House Inc., 1966)

    Waterhouse, David. Harunobu and his Age: Development of Color Printing in Japan.
    (London, The Trustees of the British Museum, 1964)

    Yoshida, Toshi and Yuki, Rey. Japanese Printmaking.
    (Tokyo and Rutland, Vt., Charles E. Tuttle Co., 1966)

    Brooklyn Museum Archives. Records of the Department of Public Information. Press releases, 1953 - 1970. 1970, 028-30.
    View Original
  • October 5, 1970 The Brooklyn Museum’s first exhibition of Japanese prints in more than three decades will open on Tuesday, October 13, 1970 and run through January 10, 1971. Chosen from the museum’s permanent collection by Miss Jo Miller, curator of the Print Department, the exhibition of JAPANESE PRINTS FROM THE EDO PERIOD (17th - 19th century) are early impressions and extremely rare. Included in the 70-odd prints being shown are Hokusai’s famous “Views of Fuji,” and several outstandingly fine works by Hiroshige, one of the finest landscape artists of the period.

    The Edo Period was the great age of the Japanese woodblock print. Produced by the thousands and sold for a few pennies, these prints chronicled the exuberant ‘floating world’ of Tokyo, then called Edo...the theaters, restaurants, wrestling booths and brothels along with the famous courtesans, actors, and pleasure-seeking samurai who frequented them.

    In addition, JAPANESE PRINTS OF THE EDO PERIOD will include several actual woodblocks, carved by unknown Japanese artists, which were discovered in The Brooklyn Museum’s print archives. They will be exhibited along with recent impressions taken from them.

    Two very rare books - a collection of Surimono woodblocks by seven of Japan’s most famous artists, among them Hokusai and Harunobu, - and a sketchbook of original drawings by Eisen (early 19th century) will be on display, with a defferent page revealed each day. Surimono represents the acme of the printers’ and engravers’ art and a unique vertical Surimono by Hokusai is among the prints chosen for the show.

    Many of the impressions on exhibit were a gift to the Museum from Mr. Louis Ledoux, a leading authority on the Japanese print. Others came from the fine collections of Mrs. Horace Havemeyer and Mr. Frederic B. Pratt.

    JAPANESE PRINTS FROM THE EDO PERIOD will be on view through January 10, 1971.

    Brooklyn Museum Archives. Records of the Department of Public Information. Press releases, 1953 - 1970. 1970, 026-27.
    View Original