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THE golden age of Japanese woodblock printing in the 18th and 19th centuries saw the spread of a highly populist art form, described as Ukiyo-e, “pictures of the floating world.”
Its meaning captures the fleeting, ephemeral pleasures of life — mostly for Japanese men — the theatre, beautiful women, courtesans, folklore stories and the beauty of animals, flowers and plants.
Produced in books, scrolls or as loose sheets, woodblock prints were made and circulated widely throughout Japanese society from the early 1600s right through until the mid-20th century, with some artists still operating with new styles and methods today.
Early illustrated woodblock books were printed on fine, expensive papers and frequently reimagined Japanese classics which had previously only been hand painted on scrolls for society’s highest elites.
Due to their popularity, printers were quick to develop processes to create more affordable books for the mass market and on a wider range of subjects, including satirical novels, art books, travel guides and advice manuals.
These also led to images that had humorous or erotic elements, as well as greetings cards that depicted animals, townscapes or popular temples.
The technique of producing images using delicately hand-carved blocks, creating more intricate designs using vivid colours and glazes, were employed to produce illustrations for historical subjects, including tales of famous samurai warriors or high-ranking societal figures.
They were also created to accompany kabuki plays, depicting actors in extravagant make-up and poses, often playing renowned samurais.
These pieces are now some of the most instantly recognisable and admired works in the history of Japanese woodblock art and represent some of the most remarkable examples of fine printmaking and craftsmanship in the art world.
The extraordinarily detailed designs in fine detail remain as brilliantly coloured as they were two centuries or more ago.
The exhibition runs from March 6-April 4, opening times: gallagherandturner.co.uk.
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