These prints are distinguished by their painterly qualities: spontaneity, boldness, and calligraphic line. Most were not designed by artists belonging to the mainstream ukiyo-e (“floating world”) printmaking tradition, but instead were executed by little-known 19th-century printmakers associated with a variety of painting traditions. The Shijō school of painting predominates, but painters from other traditions or schools are also represented.
The woodcut technique is used here to convey the sense of a calligraphic brushstroke, and in most instances the forms are depicted without the black outlines so typical of ukiyo-e. This practice, seen in many of the works on view, simulates the “boneless” method of painting that originated in China in the 10th century and was imitated in Japan. These painterly prints often lack the rich overall patterns of color and form so characteristic of ukiyo-e works. Instead, the subject is depicted against a blank ground to create a sense of depth and spatial recession, utilizing a compositional approach borrowed from painting.
The books exhibited in the central case complement the prints on the wall by illustrating how an artist’s designs were disseminated in book form. The earliest example, The Moving Brush in “Rough” Painting of 1748-49 by Morikuni (1679-1748), clearly shows how brush techniques were translated into the medium of print. Although it predates the other works in this exhibition, it is included here because its illustrations were some of the earliest to demonstrate the carryover of painting technique to woodblock printing. Other books in the case are picture albums (gafu), which circulated a painter’s or designer’s compositions widely in an inexpensive format.
A unique sense of energy and spontaneity pervades these boldly composed still-lifes and nature studies. Their loose and sketchy execution simulates the calligraphic brushwork of painting in the print medium, demonstrating the richly innovative spirit of the Japanese printmaking tradition.