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Innovation and Tradition in Japanese Woodblock Prints

Innovation and Tradition in Japanese Woodblock Prints," at the Utah Museum of Fine Arts through Jan. 30, 2000, highlights important developments in Japanese woodblock prints.

From the ukiyo-e (pictures of the "Floating World") period in the late 18th century to the very modern, Western-influenced movements of the early and mid-20th century, the exhibit is replete with striking visuals of the highest quality.The exhibition is the latest in a series featuring aspects of the museum's permanent collection. "The function of these exhibitions," said Frank Sanguinetti, director of the UMFA, "has been to allow staff, researchers and the public to examine phases and facets of the collection which have been in storage."

Woodblock print making in Japan goes back more than 1,000 years to the beginnings of Buddhism in the country.

UMFA's Japanese art scholar and exhibition curator, David Dee, writes in the exhibit's accompanying catalog: "The earliest surviving printed sheets consist of Buddhist amulets and charms of which approximately one million were distributed to Buddhist temples throughout Japan by the empress Shotoku in AD 770."

Consequently, woodblock printing facilitated the rapid spread of Buddhism, which, over a millennium later, played a pivotal role in the work of the prominent 20th century print artist Munakata Shiko (1903-75). The development of the woodblock print into a significant graphic art form occurred during the Tokugawa period (1603-1868). Writes Dee: "In the height of the Tokugawa prosperity, woodblock prints were wildly popular commercial products, depicting the latest trends in fashion, famous actors, a favored geisha and landscapes."

Woodblock prints are produced by transferring an image carved into the surface of a wooden block to a sheet of paper.

For traditional Japanese prints, the block consists of cherrywood. Initially, the artist makes a design on ordinary paper, which is then transferred to a special thin, semi-transparent paper which in turn, is pasted face down on the woodblock. A carver cuts and chisels away the surface of the block, leaving a design formed of raised lines and solid areas.

"A specialist in printing applies ink to this surface," Dee writes, "over which is placed a piece of paper, traditionally made from the inner bark of the mulberry tree."

Finally, the exposed back side of the paper is rubbed with a barren, or disk-shaped pad. This causes the transfer of ink from the block onto the front side of the paper.

Of particular interest in "Innovation and Tradition" are prints that were produced after the opening of Japan to the West in 1853.

Yokohama prints depicted scenes from the foreign quarters in Yokohama, the port city established in 1859.

The Meiji prints produced during 1868-1912 record the rapid change in Japanese life in the late 19th and early 20th century.

From 1915-1940 two other printmaking movements took shape that combined the traditional with the new.

The shin-hanga (new prints) was conceived by designers who wanted to revitalize the ukiyo-e tradition. The sosaku-hanga (creative prints) was brought into being by artists who preferred to follow the Western practice of self-expression.

"The exhibition's highlight may well be Munakata Shiko's print 'Disciple of Buddha' (Sariputra), dated 1939," said Dee. "Munakata, the most acclaimed woodblock print artist of the 20th century, combined bold patterns of black and white with iconography from Japanese folk prints. The print expresses Munakata's vitality and suggests his debt to German expressionist printmakers as well as his preoccupation with Buddhist themes."

"Innovation and Tradition" not only allows viewers to fully examine the woodblock tradition in Japan but experience first hand the craftsmanship required to produce a quality woodblock print.

The UMFA, 1530 E. 370 South on the University of Utah campus, is open every day except holidays and is always free to the public. Museum hours are Monday-Friday from 10 a.m.-5 p.m. and Saturday and Sunday from noon-5 p.m.