The Lure of Ink
In the mid-eighth century, printing reached Japan, probably by way of Korea, and for much of the next millennium, Japanese books and single-sheet prints were made in black ink (sumi) using the woodblock printing technique. These monochromatic works continued to be produced even after the technique of color woodblock printing was fully developed in the mid-eighteenth century. Some of the early examples in this exhibition, including the prints by Okumura Masanobu (1686-1784) and Mori Ransai (1740-1801), either predate or overlap with the development of color woodblock printing. Their compositions are dependent on the Chinese painting tradition, whereas other nineteenth-century designs in this gallery draw more specifically on various schools of Japanese painting for their inspiration.
The works in this exhibition all belong to the category of bird-and-flower prints (kachō-ga), which developed somewhat independently of the mainstream of ukiyo-e, or printed depictions of the "floating world" of pleasure quarters, kabuki theater, and other delights of Edo-period (1603-1868) urban entertainment. Makers of kachō-ga sought inspiration in composition, technique, and meaning by drawing heavily upon earlier Chinese and Japanese painting traditions. They attempted to simulate the textures of painted brushstrokes in their designs, and these experiments were transposed to the printed medium by block cutters who learned to manipulate the tonalities of ink in the prints, creating rougher and more uneven lines and at times even dissolving outlines. Monochrome ink painting was highly regarded in Japan. The appreciation of monochrome prints-which were both less expensive and more widely available-was a natural extension of that aesthetic.
Monochrome prints in blue ink, known as aizuri-e, or "blue-printed pictures," were probably first made in the city of Edo (now Tokyo) in 1829. Until that time, Japanese artists had used dayflower petals or indigo plants to create blue pigments. Berlin blue (bero-ai, also known as Prussian blue), a synthetic pigment first made in Berlin in about 1704, was introduced into Japan during the eighteenth century by Dutch traders at Nagasaki. It was this pigment that inspired printmakers to create aizuri-e. In the 1810s and 1820s, the distinctive new preference for indigo-dyed fabrics and blue-and-white ceramics in Japan may also have inspired printmakers to experiment seriously with this more malleable and lasting synthetic pigment. Some of the most well-known "blue prints" were part of the Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji series created by Hokusai (1760-1849) between about 1830 and 1833. Keisai Eisen (1791-1848) is another innovator whose works are included in this exhibition.