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Whittle While You Work

The artistry of woodblock printing is as much in the whittling of the wood as it is in the final print on paper. Used widely throughout East Asia, the medium originated in China. As a method of printing on cloth, the earliest surviving examples from China date to before 220, and from Egypt, to the 4th century. Ukiyo-e is the best-known type of Japanese woodblock art print. Although the earliest-known Japanese woodblock printing dates from 764-770, the technique was only widely adopted in Japan during the Edo period (1603-1867).

Seba. Between 1834 and 1842. Prints and Photographs Division Reproduction Information: Reproduction No.: LC-DIG-jpd-02029 (digital file from original print); Call No.: FP 2 - JPD, no. 1693 (B size) [P&P] Catalog Record: “Wink.” Artist Daniel Kelly. 2005. Prints and Photographs Division. Reproduction Information: Not available for reproduction.

The woodblock is prepared by cutting away the areas to show “white” and leaving the characters or image to show in “black” at the original surface level. For color printing, multiple blocks are used, each for one color.

The Prints and Photographs Division houses more than 2,500 Japanese woodblock prints and drawings, dating from the 17th to the 20th centuries, by such artists as Hiroshige, Kuniyoshi, Sadahide and Yoshiiku. They have been online for some time, but searching them was challenging because of the lack of description. All these images now have titles (Japanese and English translation) and subjects, enhancing searching and identification of these woodblock prints and drawings.

In addition, the Library’s online exhibition “The Floating World of Ukiyo-e” showcases the institution’s holdings of Japanese prints, books and drawings, along with related works from its collection created by Japanese and Western artists into the 20th century.

Another exhibition, “On the Cutting Edge,” commemorates the 50th anniversary of the College Women’s Association of Japan Print Show. The contemporary prints, donated by the artists themselves and dealers, encompass a rich diversity of styles, printmaking techniques and subject matter. Some examples include Toko Shinoda’s strong, calligraphic abstract lithographs; Noboru Yamataka’s colorful woodcuts combining landscape and architectural subjects; and Daniel Kelly’s lithograph- and woodcut-portrait of a contemporary beauty.

The CWAJ Print Show, an annual event in Tokyo since 1956, is acknowledged in art circles worldwide as a premier showcase for contemporary Japanese print art, known as hanga.