Design Influence: Japanese Prints

Ever since I discovered ukiyo-e as an undergraduate at Durham’s Oriental Museum I have been fascinated by prints, especially woodblocks or woodcuts. Woodcuts have been produced in Europe since about 1400, but ukiyo-e prints are nothing like these typically monochrome


works. Ukiyo-e is perhaps best known for its images of the “floating world” characters  – actors, sumo wrestlers and beauties -but I fell in love with the landscape artists Hokusai


and Hiroshige.


In Europe and America, ukiyo-e became a source of inspiration for the Impressionists, the Aesthetic Movement, and the Post-Impressionists






but by the turn of the century the tradition was virtually dead in Japan.
In 1906 San Francisco was hit by a devastating earthquake, one of the worst natural disasters in the history of the United States. Reconstruction plans were made almost immediately, and in 1915 the Panama Pacific International Exposition showcased the city’s recovery. Joseph Pennell – perhaps the best-know American printmaker of the time (and friend and biographer of Whistler) – was scheduled to be a juror for the event, and he encouraged a handful of local artists to launch the California Society of Etchers (CSE) in preparation. One of the founder members was Pedro J. de Lemos, who also helped to organise the California print exhibit at the Exposition. The influence of Japanese woodcuts is clearly seen in his work.


The same Exposition featured Japanese prints which so inspired William S. Rice that he resolved to become a woodblock artist.  He went on to win Best Print at the 1933 CSE show.


At roughly the same time, Frank Morley Fletcher wrote Wood-Block Printing: A Description of the Craft of Woodcutting and Colour Printing Based on the Japanese Practice”, credited with introducing the technique of Japanese coloured woodblock printing to the West. In 1924 he became director of the Santa Barbara School of the Arts, where he is believed to have (briefly) taught Frances Gearhart.


Also in 1915, in Japan, publisher Watanabe Shōzaburō coined the term shin-hanga for his attempt to revitalise traditional ukiyo-e art. Ironically, shin-hanga was influenced by Impressionism and directed at a United States market. And we come full circle…




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Filed under Art, California, Crafts, Decor, Pinterest, Prints

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