Christina here. Ever since I lived in Japan, I’ve been drawn to Japanese woodblock prints. They are both simple and beautiful, and the variety of subjects is endless. Mostly they depict nature and/or people and places, and one of the absolute masters of this art was Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849). I think most people are familiar with his most famous print known as The Great Wave, which was actually entitled Under the Wave off Kanagawa. I love how he managed to create such wonderful scenes with just a few brushstrokes and his prints really show the Japanese way of life as it was back then.
He is mostly known for his landscape prints and paintings, but he was also the most amazing illustrator for various types of books. Recently, I was fortunate enough to attend an exhibition at the British Museum in London of some of his preliminary sketches and drawings for one such, a sort of picture encyclopedia that was going to be called The Great Picture Book of Everything. It was extremely interesting to see how he’d gone about creating the prints and where he got his ideas from. Most of the drawings were quite tiny and a little dark, but all were exquisite and showed his sense of humour and incredible imagination.
It is extremely fortunate that these 103 drawings survive at all and that is entirely due to the fact that the book was never published. If it had been, the drawings would have been destroyed as part of the printing process, because a woodblock print is created by pasting the final drawing onto a block of cherry wood. A block cutter would use a chisel to cut along the lines and then the block was inked and printed onto paper. (In Japan that would be rice paper, which is beautiful in itself). The first prints were used to cut further blocks for any colour that needed to be added until the print was complete.
Hokusai lived at the end of the so-called Edo period (1615-1868), during which the Shogun, Japan’s ruler, banned people from foreign travel. For hundreds of years the country was closed to foreigners as well and trade was only permitted via the Dutch trading post on the island of Dejima in Nagasaki. Encyclopedias like the one Hokusai planned were therefore needed to show Japanese people the places they couldn’t go to and everything that could be found there.
To me, this encyclopedia seems to have been a great mish-mash of things, but no one knows what Hokusai had planned to add or how large this book was going to be. There are some more drawings in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, of plants, fish and other natural subjects, so the artist must have envisaged a large volume. The illustrations I saw were a mixture of mythological themes (both Japanese and Chinese), drawings of animals and some plants, and people. Ordinary creatures such as cats are drawn with great skill and seem very lifelike, while others made me laugh out loud as the artist had clearly never seen them in real life. I particularly enjoyed his depiction of a supposed rhinoceros (see photo) – it’s hilarious! And he’s paired it with what looks like a merman so maybe he thought they lived in or near the sea?
He also has no problem juxtaposing real creatures with mythological ones. In one drawing, for example, he had depicted a bird-of-paradise (top) and a jianjian (bottom) from Chinese mythology. In another, he’s put together some sort of flying raccoon-dog with a black fox, a shōjō (ape-like creature from myth) and a camel. (Hokusai must have seen a camel somewhere as this looks a lot better than his rhinoceros!) And there was also a drawing of a phoenix and a peacock.
He seems to have had a great knack for portraying expressions on the faces of the people he drew, although their features on the whole seemed very similar to me, even when he was trying to depict various ethnic groups. The clothing they wear is often elaborate and he renders the flowing lines of garments particularly well. It would seem he was a forerunner to modern manga drawing as well. In this illustration a man is being struck dead by lightning, and the way Hokusai has drawn the rays exploding around him looks very much like drawings we see today. Striking in every sense of the word!
Going back to his most famous print, Under the Wave off Kanagawa (The Great Wave), one of the illustrations showed a bear under a waterfall and the water is drawn in a very similar way to the wave, showing Hokusai’s individual style. The Great Wave was part of a Hokusai’s most successful work, a series called Thirty-Six Views of Mt Fuji. They are all wonderful, but this image is particularly striking as it features some poor fishermen about to be engulfed by the sea. Between 5,000 and 15,000 copies were made of this print, showing that it was just as popular in his own time as now.
Creating a woodblock print is a laborious process, but once you have the block thousands of prints can be made from the same one. They do get worn out though, as was shown by the different examples of The Great Wave that were on display (the museum owned several). Fascinating!
Japan’s isolation from the rest of the world came to an end in 1868 when the so-called Meiji Period started. With trade links open at last, Japanese art and objects came onto the European market and had a huge impact on artists there. Some of them started to collect Japanese prints and were influenced by the style which they called ‘Japonism’. I can totally see why they would have been fascinated by this as it is so different to what they were used to.
My own personal favourite woodblock print artist is Toyohara Chikanobu (1838-1912) and I’ve been collecting his triptychs for years. They were great as inspiration when I was writing my Japanese historical romance trilogy, the Kumashiro saga. The gorgeous kimonos of the ladies depicted gave me ideas for what my heroine could wear, for example. The prints also show a lot of other useful things, like the accessories and interiors of the women’s quarters in a samurai household, their lapdogs, food trays and musical instruments, all demonstrating how they passed their time. Each triptych gives the viewer a look into their world. They are all so colourful, and I chose mostly prints with accents of deep red because that suited my colour scheme, but there are other more subtle ones that are equally as beautiful.