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Japanese colour woodblock prints depict the real world with great technical expertise

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Representing scenes from everyday life, artists of the Edo period elevated the technique of woodblock printing to a pinnacle of Japanese artistic achievement. These prints were later to exert a profound influence on artists in the West.

Printmaking developed in Japan during the peaceful Edo period, which lasted from 1615 until the middle of the nineteenth century. The usual method was woodblock printing. The artist copied the original design onto transparent paper, and an artisan carved it on one or more blocks of cherry wood. A publisher then printed the impressions on a robust type of paper called hosh, made from the bark of the mulberry tree.

The favoured subjects in the eighteenth century, when the art of printmaking reached a pinnacle of excellence, were those called ukiyo-e, or "pictures of the floating world." This refers to the transient pleasures of everyday life, described at that time as "living only for the moment... taking pleasure in the moon, the sun, the cherry blossoms, and the maple leaves, singing songs, drinking wine, and diverting ourselves by just floating... like a gourd floating along with the river current." These pleasures were to be found most easily in the bustling cities of Edo (now Tokyo), Osaka, and Kyoto, in tea houses, theatres, and brothels, and it was these locations that featured in the most popular prints. The rise of Kabuki, Japan's popular theatre, led to a craze for prints of actors and scenes from the latest plays. Prints of beautiful women, usually courtesans and often shown with their lovers, were also popular.

One of the finest artists was Kitagawa Utamaro, who captured female beauty in all its forms. His publisher used powdered mother-of-pearl and gold dust to heighten the glamour of his prints. He also produced magnificent


19 Hunting for Insects

Suzuki Harunobu, c. 1776-1778

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