Beauty & Bravado In Japanese Woodblock Prints

Excerpt from Essay by Laura Miller

. . . it is not secret that the prints choose whom they love and there is then no salvation but surrender.
—Frank Lloyd Wright, 1917

Japanese woodblock prints have captivated collectors, dealers, and artists in the West since the opening of Japan to foreigners in the mid-nineteenth century. Like the post-Impressionist Vincent Van Gogh (1853–1890) and the architect Frank Lloyd Wright (1867–1959), Gillett G. Griffin felt the allure of these prints, with their expressive lines, refined compositions, and distinct artistic vocabulary. His collection of 85 works on paper, including woodblock prints and related ink drawings and sketches, provides a fascinating look at the development, diversity, and appeal of ukiyo-e, or “pictures of the floating world.”
Print Culture in the Edo Period
By most accounts, the Edo period (1615–1868) ushered in a new era of relative peace and prosperity for Japan. The three main urban centers of Kyoto, Osaka, and Edo (present-day Tokyo) flourished, and the vibrant bourgeois spirit of the merchant class (chōnin) found expression in entertainments that included the kabuki theater and the pleasure districts, along with the ukiyo-e that documented them. By the middle of the eighteenth century, Japan’s highly developed publishing industry, with its sophisticated system of procurement, production, distribution, and marketing, was firmly established in Edo.

Driven by strong market forces and changing fashions, an extremely competitive environment emerged, in which artists’ aesthetic considerations were often secondary to the publishers’ commercial ones. Woodblock prints became a dominant mode of artistic and economic expression for the publishers, artists, block carvers, and printers involved in their creation, and they often incorporated social and political commentary reflecting the complexities of the period. The artificially constructed social hierarchies promoted by the Tokugawa shogunate to legitimate its military rule succumbed to the political and economic realities of the burgeoning city. As the city’s merchants grew wealthy and as laborers and artisans found new levels of prosperity, a mass culture flourished that catered to the nouveaux riches. The fashions and tastes of these new urban classes were often driven by the celebrated members of the kabuki theaters and the pleasure quarters, and woodblock printed ukiyo-e played a critical role in disseminating this information. Through these images, artists developed an elaborate visual vocabulary that formed the basis of a thriving and sophisticated print culture (shuppan bunka).

Works in the Griffin collection offer many vibrant examples of the changing fashions and the advancements in print technologies that occurred over a period of almost two hundred years. The evolving aesthetic evident in these published images can be traced from some of the earliest single-sheet, monochrome prints from the turn of the eighteenth century through to the elaborately printed polychrome prints of the second half of the nineteenth century. But the collection is not limited to an overview of the history of Japanese printmaking. It also incorporates drawings and sketches that elucidate the ingenuity of the artists and the collaborative nature of the medium. Furthermore, the distinguished provenance of some prints in the collection provides a fascinating look at the history of collecting in the West and the global movement of Japanese art from the end of the nineteenth century. The visual splendor of these works on paper, whether idealizing the beauty of the courtesans who inhabited the pleasure quarter or the capturing the dramatic bravado of actors on the kabuki stage, have captivated generations of viewers, both inside and outside of Japan. 

© Laura Mueller