Japanese art – particularly the wood-block prints of the 19th century – has inspired artists the world over.

Emakimono

One of the earliest forms of pictorial art in Japan is the emakimono or emaki (11th – 16th century). These are long scrolls containing illustrated narratives – both text and pictures.

The stories are drawn, painted, or stamped on the scroll, and depict battles, romance, religion, folk tales, and stories of the supernatural world. The scroll is intended to be read from right to left, exposing an arms-length of the scroll at a time. The text of the story would usually be at the start of the scroll, or interspersed between the pictures. They are unique to Japan, and can be seen as the origin of modern manga.

One of the most celebrated emakimono is the series by Takayoshi that illustrate “Genji Monogatari” (the Tale of Genji), written by the celebrated woman writer of the Heian period, Murasaki-Shikibu.

The Edo Period: Ukiyo-e

The most celebrated and influential form of Japanese art flourished in the Edo period, (17th – 19th century). By this time, increasing urbanisation had created a class of merchants and artisans who wrote stories and novels, published in illustrated books. Woodblock prints were produced, first in simplified colours but later (from the 1760’s) as fully-coloured prints, depicting scenes from the kabuki theatre, elegant society, brothels, and landscapes or travel guides.

Ukiyo-e literally means “floating world”, and refers to the Buddhist term ukiyo, contrasting the floating secular world with the reality of the spiritual. But this transience became seen as an excuse for frivolous, extravagant, pleasurable pastimes. The subject matter of the woodblock prints reflected this: beautiful women, kabuki actors, landscapes and erotic scenes. Firstly used for story-book illustrations, they developed into single-sheet prints and posters, becoming very popular and widely available. The term ukiyo-e came to be applied to all prints and paintings of artists working for this popular market.

The usual method of obtaining colour effects was with the use of several separate wood-blocks, one for each colour to be produced.

The beauty and interest of these woodblock prints has been long recognised outside Japan, at times even more so than in Japan itself. There are notable collections by the major artists worldwide.
Utagawa Toyokuni: several works at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, and a good collection at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.
Kitagawa Utamaro: several works at the British Museum, San Francisco and throughout the USA.

Tokyo’s National Museum has many good examples of Hiroshige and Hokusai (mainly landscapes and nature).
After the 1850s Japanese wood-block prints became known in the West; their odd viewpoints, flattened perspective and strong lines strongly influenced European artists such as Van Gogh, Degas, Monet and Mary Cassat.