Japanese Woodblock printing actually started roughly about 1660 with the appearance of Moronobu, a Japanese painter and printer and son of an embroider known for his ukiyo-e-woodcut styles. This period then ends a century later when the technique of art had been developed from the black and white print to the full multi-color printing. As the 16th century came to a close the beginning of the Edo period came about and in this era we witness the creation of the ukiyo-e pictures of the “floating world”. With the printing of novels and images of the first publications of woodcut illustrations are being designed at the Tosa school with the printing of the “Tales of Ise”. Thanks to the printing of the ukiyo-e style novels and images the artwork was able to find its way to the citizens of Japan. The artwork of Hishikawa Moronobu, Suzuki Harunobu, kwaigetsudo, Kiyonobo, Kiyoshige and others also know at “the Primitives” gave the world over a thousand years of artistic experience and tradition with the of sophisticated aesthetics.
The overall style of “the Primitives “was work of actor- prints and calligraphic lines that are all one-dimensional with flatten patterns and lights and darks. The black and white prints are called sumi-ye, the first being designed around 1670. The next development of prints came with vibrant color with the use of orange, yellow, green, blue and brown at around the 1700. The use of color continued up until the year 1742 and was perfected with the use of two color blocks which allowed for the true color to show. Hand coloring was still used for larger and more important pieces such as pillar-prints. Moving into the second period of woodblock printing the artist of the 1742 and beyond found themselves able to design and create prints with unlimited uses of color, design and style. Their works included the use of unlimited number of woodblocks, gone are the days of musicians and instruments, now there are prints of dancing girls in taverns.
The most well-known artist of this period is Harunobu his subjects of actors and women depicted of light and trivial scenes with unreal and un-human impressions. Most of his prints are small in size square but a few he turned rare pillar-prints of fine pieces utilizing positive and negative space through the designs. Toward the end of the Edo period, there was no longer an escape into scenes of idealized beauty. Rather, this new era demanded art that confronted life directly and without illusion.
The period from 1868 until 1912 in Japan is called the Meiji era – after the name chosen by the young prince Mutsuhito, when he followed his father to the throne. Meiji means in Japanese ‘the enlightened rule’. During the Meiji period Japan underwent a stunning development from a medieval society to a leading economic and military power in Asia. As the floating world is being left behind we being to see the transition of “everyday life” being depicted in the artwork as trade begins to open up to the west. Other works being designed in woodblock print are women of the pleasure district, known as bijin-ga,( means pictures of beautiful women) erotica and those of famous kabuki actors. Prints of these were made to be distributed as both art and advertisement to the samurai and chonin.
The next period in Japan is known as the Showa period it is derived of three sub-period which mostly dealt with the Great Depression in Japan to the attack on Pearl Harbor and the first atomic bomb being dropped on Hiroshima. There is a lot of propaganda artwork being designed in the means of books, radio, newspapers and film. One of the most famous posters posted around Japan were those of Chocolate and Soldiers, but much of Japans artwork was aimed at the enemy, namely the United States. Woodblock printing was also used for other purposes at this time, for example it was used in newspapers to depict scenes from the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-1895 and the Russo-Japanese war of 1904-1905. It should be noted, however, that western visitors to Japan did have a desire for traditional woodblock prints especially in the years between World War I and World War II in contrast for the overall Japanese interest in western culture and innovations.
Today in the Heisei Period, most of the Japanese woodblock art are reproductions of original works and sold in local galleries throughout the U.S as well as on-line websites. The United States is the largest dealer of Japanese woodblock Prints with dealers selling, trading and displaying their collective pieces.