Vintage Japanese Woodblock Prints

Vintage and antique Japanese woodblock prints are plentiful in the marketplace, and there are options to suit every taste and budget. Called ukiyo-e (images of the floating world) because of their associations with the ephemeral pleasures of life, they were used as cheap, disposable artwork in lower class households in Japan. They tend to depict scenes of the pleasure quarters of Tokyo, where the theater, geishas, prostitutes and restaurants were located.

During the Edo period (1615-1868) the merchant classes were not allowed, by order of the Shogun, to demonstrate their wealth in their households in the same way the upper classes were allowed, and yet they often had the most money to spend. The pleasure quarters grew out of economic necessity, as rich merchants pursued eating, the company of geishas and the theater without regard to cost.

Nineteenth and twentieth century Japanese life and art reflected this focus on consumerism; when Western ideas were introduced into the culture, scenes of temples and festivals added to the canon of ukiyo-e imagery.

Nineteenth century prints overwhelmingly favor so-called actor-prints, the most famous of which are those of Sharaku, whose cross-eyed, grimacing Kabuki actors (and a few Sumo wrestlers) were actually mocking portraits that were unpopular with the fans of these celebrities, who saw them as heroic figures. His prints are rate because his output was small (roughly only 140 prints were ever completed), compared to the more prolific output of his contemporaries.

Consignments received by Pacific Galleries have included one actor print, the central image of a triptych. The artist, Kunichika Toyohara (born Yashohachi Oshima) is of the Utagawa School, a loosely united group of artists working in a similar style. Kunichika apprenticed under the masters Kunisada and Chikanobu, taking part of their names when he completed his training, which was a common practice among these artists (resulting in numerous names changes for some of them). This central actor print image is expected to sell for between $100 and $300; being part of an incomplete triptych slightly hurts its value.

An early 20th century woodblock print depicting a temple gate on a rainy day is typical of the artist Hasui Kawase (1883-1957). His prolific work typifies the early 20th century style, and his work often imbued landscapes and city scenes with a wistful sadness. Snow scenes and brightly colored prints are slightly less popular with buyers and so do not fetch as high a price at auction. I expect that this moody, grey scene that communicates the essence of an achingly ephemeral moment will sell at auction for between $200 and $500.

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