The Beauty of Black in Japanese Woodblock Prints from the Abbey Aldrich Rockefeller Collection
When the famous 18th century woodblock print master, Suzuki Harunobu (1724-1770), developed the multi-colored "brocade" print (nishiki-e) in the 1760's, he laid the technical foundation for decades of beautiful color prints. The precision and richness of color in Japanese prints are recognized the world over. Less commonly associated with the woodblock print tradition, but nonetheless essential to it, is the degree to which artists perceived and employed the magical beauty of black ink in prints. Indeed, the quality of line, shapes and textured created by ink tones are fundamental to the beauty of woodblock prints. Since the earliest linear ink monochrome prints (sumizuri-e), the print artist has explored, in the process of adapting pictorial effects from painting, lacquerware and textile traditions to the print medium, the graphic power of black tones and has created prints of a unique impact that no paint brush alone could imitate.
The Museum's Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Collection offers stunning examples of the various ways print artists from the late 18th-century transformed ideas form the painting and craft traditions into innovative painting techniques. Especially rare and remarkable are three prints by Ito Jakuchu (1716-1800), known as one of the great individualist or eccentric artist of the 18th century, from a series called Kacho-zu (Pictures of Flowers and Birds) produced in 1771. The prints simuklate stone-rubbing (kappazuri) probably adapted from a textile patterning technique. ALso on view are prints by Mori Ransai (1740?-1801), Shibata Zeshin (1807-1891) and Kawanabe Kyosai (1831-1889), three artists influenced by different painting school styles of their day. Ransai preferred the painting style of the Chinese master Shen Nanping (fl. mid-18th century), Zeshin began as a student of the Kyoto-Osaka based Shijo School-style of painting, and Kyosai established himself as a Kano School-style painter and print artist.
In Ransai's elegantly controlled textures and ink tones, Zeshin's bold silhouettes of crows and use of lacquer, and Kyosai's masterful integration of black and white shapes and embossed surface in White Heron in Rain, the use of black ink--the pictorial beauty unique to the carved wood, inked shapes and stamped paper of prints. Even Ando Hiroshige (1797-1858), famous for his breathtaking and colorful landscape prints of the 53 Stations on the Tokaido, worked in the monochrome print genre. In prints that resemble miniature ink monochrome paintings in reverse, Hiroshige created images of bewitching mood and drama. Just as light is accentuated by shadow and sound made more beautiful by silence, so was the color print tradition enhanced by the artist's use of black and the lessons learned from ink monochrome painting.