• Japan in Color

Japan in Color

Japan in color


We are pleased to present you a collection of one hundred and seventy woodcuts, which with their colors, sometimes vivid and bright, sometimes delicate and subtle, we hope will convey some poetry.

Alongside famous masters such as Hiroshige and Hasui, there are lesser known artists who tell the elegance and essentiality of a country that has made the pursuit of perfection the aim of its aesthetics.

Hiroshige Utagawa I (1797-1858), undoubtedly the best known name among the artists on display, is one of the leading representatives of the current of Ukiyo-e (literally floating world), born and developed during the Edo period (1603 - 1868). Hiroshige, known for his chromatic richness and for his ability to convey the feeling of nature, was the artist who most influenced the Impressionists.

On display in addition to the inevitable Fuji, the bays and fishermen immersed in the calm and everyday life of the village, the arrival of the evening told through an extraordinary rainbow, the seasons welcomed and celebrated at all times as in the festival of Tanabata , the festival of summer and the first light of dawn appearing in Yoshiwara, the pleasure district of Edo . Prussian blue and turquoise are the predominant colors, declined in infinite shades according to the refined bokashi technique that allowed to create the illusion of depth.

Hiroshige II , (1826-1869) Inherited the name Hiroshige II following the death in 1858 of his teacher Hiroshige, whose daughter he married.

His works have often been confused with those of his teacher, to whom they closely resemble in style, subject and signature. Early Western scholars often confused them. However, in some tables the finesse of the details is even higher than that of his master.

Following the Edo era, the Meiji era (1868-1912) was one of the busiest periods in Japanese history. In fact, in those years Japan saw the transformation of its political, economic and cultural assets and in a very short time reached the economic level of the major industrialized countries of the West.

In the artistic field, techniques and themes from Europe were introduced, following exchanges and influences with Western art. Three artists from this period to whom we turn our attention.

Kōno Bairei (1844 -1895), still linked to the classical tradition, is known above all for the woodcuts on the subject of Kacho-e (flowers, plants and birds). We present a collection of very delicate, hand-colored flowers.

Among the first to include some aspects of Western art in his work was Kodama Nagari (active from 1850 to 1890) who created colorful patterns for kimonos, of great modernity.

Tsuda Seifu (1880-1978) he established himself from an early age as a creator of floral and geometric decorative motifs, a style that is extremely refined and has many points of contact with Art Nouveau.

The latest artistic current in the exhibition is that of Shin-hanga , also known as the movement of "new prints" or neo Ukiyo-e : Hasui , Yoshida , Koson And Koitsu were the greatest interpreters.

We are at the beginning of the Shōwa period (1926 - 1989), the Shin-hanga artists create a style that combines traditional subjects with a modern trait inspired by impressionism and realism.

Their works, bathed in soft light, convey a nostalgic and romantic vision of Japan, enhancing the rural roots and traditional architecture that was completely disappearing from the urban landscape of Tokyo and the big cities.

Rain, snow, sunrises and sunsets and nights among favorite subjects.

But it is through the reflection of these elements on the water that they reach their maximum artistic expression.

Often their prints were very complex and involved a wide range of colors. For the more complex woodcuts, up to 25 different woods were engraved.


The technique

Woodcut (from the Greek xylographêin composed of ' xilo' and ' grafia '; literally 'writing on wood') is a printing process in which the matrix is made up of a wooden tablet on which the desired image is carved. The artist traces the image on the tablet, then, with sharp tools, chisels and gouges, removes the parts that will be white on the sheet, leaving those that will receive the ink in relief. Very thin and delicate lamellae emerge from the dug furrows. The master thus prepared is ready to receive the ink, the paper is laid down and a slight pressure is applied with a roller. The operation obviously repeats itself for each copy.

The great masters of Ukiyo-e developed a technique in the mid-1700s that allowed them to obtain color images using multiple matrices. Maintaining a perfect register, several plates were carved, one for each desired color, then inked and printed in succession on the same sheet.


Cherry wood was used for the production of the matrices, for its ability to remain stable in humid conditions, for the hardness that allowed a considerable number of copies to be printed before the lines began to show signs of wear, however, it was enough malleable to allow the engraving of subtle and complex motifs. Furthermore, in the first impressions, it was possible to transfer the characteristic and beautiful grain of the cherry tree to the sheet.

The instruments

The steel with which the chisels and gouges were forged was modeled with the same technique used for the production of katanas , it was a long and tiring manual process in which the steel was folded over and over again, then polished until when the blade was perfectly sharp.

The print

The matrix was covered with a damp sheet of paper which was rubbed with a baren (bamboo brush) to facilitate color transfer. The baren is a flat disc-shaped tool with a handle. Brushing took place with circular movements, skilfully alternated and measured by the printer to obtain interesting visual effects during the printing process.


During the Edo period (1603-1868), the pigments used for this technique were of natural origin. From the Meiji period onwards, when Japan opened its borders, chemical pigments with brighter and more gaudy colors began to be imported.

The paper

The paper used, washi , was made from mulberry bark fibers. It was a very thin paper, strong enough to withstand the pressure of the baren .