Woodblock printmaking was known in Japan from as early as the Nara period (710 -94), but it was used almost exclusively for printing Buddhist and Chinese texts until the end of the 16th century. The political ascendancy of the Tokugawa shogunate marked the beginning of the Edo period (1603 -1867), an extended epoch of peace and prosperity. From the 17th century onward, literacy became more widespread, and the demand for printed books increased. Pictures were added to printed texts, and these monochrome woodblock images inspired the making of singlesheet prints. Woodblock technique slowly evolved during the 18th century, as prints gradually became colored, at first by hand and then by using multiple blocks, one for each color in the composition of an individual print. Harunobu (1725-70) is traditionally credited with the creation of multiple-block prints, called “brocade prints” (nishiki-e), in 1765. Initially, poetry societies privately commissioned these as calendar prints (egoyomi). Generally, polychrome prints required at least ten to twelve or more blocks, one for each hue. From a technical standpoint, the mid-18th-century development of registration marks (kento) cut into the blocks was critical to the evolution of full-color printing. It insured a precise alignment of the multiple blocks impressed in succession onto the sheet of paper.
During the Edo period, the name that appeared on the print was that of the designer who conceived the overall composition of the work. He usually sold his design to a publisher, who would then work with the designer as the blocks were carved and prepared for printing by specialists. (Privately commissioned prints - surimono - are an exception to this pattern.) Two prints in this exhibition are paired with similar drawings to illustrate how compositions were conceived and presented to the publisher. The publisher, of course, had to produce them as cost-effectively as possible. Several examples in this room illustrate how two or more prints were made from one block and then cut apart before sale. One pair of prints also illustrates how a variety of impressions was made from a set of woodblocks. In some cases special effects such as ink gradations (bokashi) and embossing were intrinsic to production, whereas in others less labor-intensive printing methods were employed to expedite the process. Prints could be made into decorations for the vertical wooden pillars of a traditional Japanese house, hanging scrolls, fans, book covers, or envelopes for correspondence and announcements.