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2 Nov 2019 - 8 Mar 2020

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Woodblock prints

Woodblock prints

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Brief introduction to the woodblock printing process

Historically, the process of woodblock printing in Japan involved a number of participants. Firstly, a publisher would commission an artist to create a design or series, organising and financing the project in order to eventually sell them to buyers. The artist would then make a preparatory detailed sketch. This was given to a block copyist who would produce a more complex line drawing on thin washi paper. There are two 19th century preparatory sketches by Yoshitoshi in the Art Gallery of New South Wales collection: Confrontation with the murderer and Ruffians entering house.

Once the drawing was settled upon, it had to be viewed by the official censors. If it passed, it was given to a block carver, who would place the drawing on a slab of cherry wood and carve everything away except the outlines of the drawing, creating the key block from which the black lines were printed. Other blocks were then carved, leaving a raised area that was to be printed. Each colour had its own block. The printer would create their own inks then print the composition from the various blocks. Once a block was inked with a colour, paper would be placed on the block and rubbed to transfer the ink. Multiple pages were printed with the same colour, with the process being repeated for different areas of the image.

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Video
Ukiyo-e woodblock printmaking with Keizaburo Matsuzaki

Master printer Keizaburo Matsuzaki visited the Art Gallery of NSW in March 2010. He brought the woodblocks to create a print of Takashima Ohisa, the teahouse waitress, designed by Kitagawa Utamaro (1754-1806) in the 1790s.

Length: 8:47

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Woodblock prints

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Tsukioka Yoshitoshi, '(Ruffians entering house)', late 1800s, ink on paper. Art Gallery of New South Wales, purchased 1978.
Tsukioka Yoshitoshi, '(Ruffians entering house)', late 1800s
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Tsukioka Yoshitoshi, '(Confrontation with the murderer)', late 1800s, ink on paper. Art Gallery of New South Wales, purchased 1978.
Tsukioka Yoshitoshi, '(Confrontation with the murderer)', late 1800s
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Tsukioka Yoshitoshi, 'The dancing pot at Ninnaji temple' from the untitled series known as Sketches by Yoshitoshi (Yoshitoshi ryakuga), 1882,woodblock print, ink and colour on paper. Art Gallery of New South Wales, Yasuko Myer Bequest Fund 2019.
Tsukioka Yoshitoshi, 'The dancing pot at Ninnaji temple', 1882

This impression of children watching a monstrous looming shadow through a paper screen is based on a story by Yoshida Kenko (1283–1350) that describes a night of revelry at a temple in Kyoto. During the evening, a drunken monk put a three-legged bronze pot on his head and danced around happily until he realised it was stuck. He was later released from the pot, at the expense of his nose and ears.

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Tsukioka Yoshitoshi, 'Tadamori surprises the oil monk before the Gion Shrine' from the untitled series known as Sketches by Yoshitoshi (Yoshitoshi ryakuga), 1882, woodblock print; ink and colour on paper. Art Gallery of New South Wales, Yasuko Myer Bequest Fund 2019.
Tsukioka Yoshitoshi, 'Tadamori surprises the oil monk before the Gion Shrine', 1882

Yoshitoshi revisited this popular tale several times. It is the story of a brave warrior, Tairo no Tadamori, given the task of catching a spikey-headed, fire-breathing demon menacing a temple. What he discovered instead was a poor monk with a grass hat carrying a flame to light the way as he pilfered oil from the stone lanterns in the temple garden. The monk was let be and Tadamori was rewarded for his patience and logic.

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Tsukioka Yoshitoshi, 'Moon of the lonely house (Hitotsuya no tsuki)' from the series One hundred aspects of the moon (Tsuki hyakushi), 1890, woodblock print; ink and colour on paper. Art Gallery New South Wales, Yasuko Myer Bequest Fund 2012.
Tsukioka Yoshitoshi, 'Moon of the lonely house (Hitotsuya no tsuki)' 1890

An old lady served a high-ranking lord whose disease could only be cured with the blood of children in a certain month. Under a well-lit moon, she went to kill children for their blood. After her lord recovered, she confessed to her deeds and was pardoned. The story varies, sometimes she seeks the blood of pilgrims, other times the blood of travellers or unborn babies. Here, the old lady is shown peering around the doorway at a victim, ready to kill. Both Yoshitoshi and his teacher Kuniyoshi used consistent motifs in works on this theme, such as the rope around the roof, the climbing vine and the woman’s withered breasts.

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Yōshū Chikanobu, 'Jiraiya from the series Bamboo knots (Take no hitofushi)', 1894, woodblock print; ink and colour on paper. Chan and Donovan Collection, Sydney
Yōshū Chikanobu, 'Jiraiya from the series Bamboo knots (Take no hitofushi)', 1894

The character Jiraiya (‘thunder god’) comes from the Tales of the heroic Jiraiya (Jiraiya gōketsu monogatari), in which he plays a good-hearted outlaw who can magically summon a giant toad. Here we see three characters in battle on a rope bridge. Curiously, Jiraiya (left) holds a gun in defence, indicating that the artist took inspiration from contemporary life. In the centre is the fearsome looking warrior Takasago no Yuminosuke who wears wolf skin over his robes and carries a bow. To the right, the bandit Yashagorō glares at Yuminosuke as he readies to draw his sword.

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