ZOne of the great pleasures in Japan is to walk over curved bridges that stretch over ponds or rivers. The visitor looks at the bridge, strides forward, looks from the bridge.
Crossings are full of meaning, just like everything in Japan is somehow meaningful. The other, new, unknown is achieved, connections are created. The reality of these artistically built transitions has something artificial, which is what makes it so interesting.
And that leads directly to the art of woodcut. Without gossiping about the transitory and its power, there is little man-made that is shown so often in Japanese pictures. You have to walk over seven or 70 bridges, survive seven or 70 dark years.
It often rains and storms when crossing the bridge in Japan. In the pictures, people walk bent under the load on their backs and existence, the lines fall obliquely. Nature has people under control, they are small and imperfect.
The water piles up just like the mountains and the clouds. All-clear for travelers: In the idealized landscape that shapes our image of Japan, the weather is often much worse than in reality.
Weather plays an important role in woodcuts
Taschen-Verlag has now combined 200 Japanese woodcuts in a voluminous volume, based on the world’s best-preserved prints from collections and museums. The result is impressive: every stroke is in the right place, the colors are clear and intense – and not, as you often see, washed out and covered with a gray blanket.
In addition to wind and rain, many pictures indulge in a winter mood. The white of the snow is always of the highest purity, the snow shines, yes seems to glow, so white it is. Circular flakes fall from the sky, precisely arranged to underline the impression of well-being even in freezing temperatures. Japanese love order, even in nature.
It is no coincidence that weather and weather play an important role in most woodcuts. Japan is the country in Asia that, unlike others, has four seasons. The year is not determined by the dry and rainy season, but by spring, summer, autumn and winter.
Every time is celebrated with care and enthusiasm, be it the bloom in spring or the riot of colors in autumn. Out of this cultural pride has grown a Japanese elite thinking and a feeling of superiority that continues to this day.
Japan adopted the technology from China
Woodcut technology came to Japan early from China. Initially, it was illustrations in the first books that were created using movable letters. These came onto the market from Kyoto in the 17th century.
The pictures were often revealing, they mainly showed actors, warriors, beautiful women, for whom courtesans were models. Even in the early pictures, the expressive faces can already be seen, which make Western viewers easily think of grimaces and classic overacting.
Because of continued popularity and demand, street vendors began selling single sheets. The publishers owned the wooden printing blocks made by Holzschneider based on the artist’s design. Up to 200 sheets could be printed, at first only in black ink, soon multicolored.
The art form becomes later ukiyo-e called, “Images of the flowing world”. Rows were created in which an image consisted of up to five sheets that were placed side by side. Triptychs with women who travel by ferry across rivers were very popular. Depending on the season, in summer dresses or surrounded by snowflakes.
The censorship banned all fornication
The landscape paintings became popular on a rocky detour. Because the woodcut industry boomed, the concern of the authorities grew at the end of the 18th century. The censorship banned everything fornication; the market almost came to a standstill.
Courtesans were no longer allowed to be portrayed, which primarily led to the artists omitting the names of the portrayed people in order to give their pictures something universal. In 1800, a luxury law prohibited additional head portraits of women and luxurious dresses.
Historical warriors should also no longer be drawn. Pictures with explicit sexual representations, the so-called spring pictures, Shunga, were now also taboo. However, they were sold under the counter due to continued demand.
Nature was sexy now
At the beginning of the 19th century, a woodcut master began his triumphal march, who had previously mainly drawn actors in his master’s workshop. He brought drawings from all over the world from a long and arduous journey through Japan.
He called his sketches “Manga”, the term later gave the Japanese comics their name. He himself used more than 30 names in his works and was always only one: Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849).
The Japanese enchanted his landscapes, then as now. His fame shines worldwide. Our current picture of Mount Fuji is shaped by his “36 Views of Mount Fuji” (1830), which were so popular that he produced 46 sheets for it and in 1834 filled a book with 100 views.
Hokusai made series about waterfalls, bridges, islands. With him, the landscape got the coveted rank of Shunga. Nature was sexy now. And remained so. The trend towards the series was due to a market demand, the collectors were fighting for it.
But it also led to a fascinating view of nature: always new looks at the same content; eternal change and prompt return; the flow of things and therefore of time.
Visitors to classic Japanese landmarks, temples, shrines, and especially the gardens, inevitably grasp similar thoughts. Reality and its artificial images both serve to internalize.
From a western perspective, feelings of strangeness and distance emerge, which are also extremely attractive. You want to dive into these pictures as you would into the sea – without knowing how impressed and changed you will get out of the water.
The views shown come from the illustrated book by Andreas Marks, “Japanese Woodcuts (1680–1938)”, Verlag Taschen, XXL volume, 622 pages, 150 euros