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Musing on Woodcut Printing
[ Artist Interview )
Contemporary artist Rebecca Salter discusses the importance of Japanese woodcut printing and muses on how the technique has influenced her own practice.
The Japanese artist Hokusai gave the world one of its best known images in The Great Wave off Kanagawa but relatively little is known in the West of the Japanese woodcut technique that produced it and enabled its dissemination within Japan and beyond its borders. The craftsmen who produced it – the carvers and printers – are barely acknowledged, but they were part of a traditional craft system responsible for producing all the great Japanese prints we are familiar with, including Hiroshige’s Travellers Surprised by Sudden Rain, which is in the Pallant House Gallery collection. This is a fine example of the tradition at its peak and in particular the delicate shafts of dynamic rain driven across the composition show the extraordinary technical skill of the carvers.
By the early twentieth century, however, the traditional set-up of publisher, artist, carver and printer was struggling against the competition from mechanical processes such as photography and lithography.
One of the responses to this threat came from a group of artists who adopted the technique but carved and printed their work themselves in a way which is very familiar to printmakers in the West. This movement and way of working, with the artist at the artistic and technical heart of the process, became known as Sosaku Hanga.
The Japanese artist, Nana Shiomi, is the heir to this way of approaching Japanese woodcut and her work is featured in the current exhibition, Hockney to Himid: 60 Years of British Printmaking.
Shiomi has lived in the UK since 1989 having come here to study, but her imagery and use of the technique remains firmly rooted in the Japanese tradition. She carves and prints her work herself and this exhibition offers an opportunity to see not only a finished print but also blocks and stage proofs to illustrate the process.
I had known and loved Japanese prints since childhood but shared the general ignorance of how they were produced. When I was a student at Kyoto City University of Arts in the early 1980s I had the chance to both learn the technique of Japanese woodcut from Professor Kurosaki Akira and to get to know craftsmen in Kyoto who were still working in the traditional way.
For historical reasons, woodcut in Kyoto has a more painterly feel than its Tokyo equivalent and one of the few remaining workshops skilled in this area is the Sato Woodblock Workshop in Kyoto. I have worked with them to produce several prints, including Celest 1 and Celest 2.
Every year I visit them and in 2015 I took with me two watercolours painted on muslin – and a limited budget to offer them to interpret the watercolours in woodcut. And they managed it! The prints are a tour de force of painterly printmaking and it is hard to believe that the marks are carved in wood.
Unlike most western printmaking which uses oil-based colour, the Japanese woodcut method prefers water-based colours and, of course, Japanese paper which although it is sized, still retains a softness and delicacy which is hard to equal with Western paper. The magic of the technique lies in the way the colour is gently coaxed into the fibres of the paper so the printed image appears to float’ beyond’ the surface of the paper.
Prints produced using the Japanese woodcut technique are a testament to its extraordinary sophistication and just as it rose to the challenges of the early twentieth century, I hope it finds a way to survive well into the twenty-first century.
Rebecca Salter is a contemporary artist in printmaking and painting. She was elected to the Royal Academy as a Printmaker in 2014 and in 2019 became the first female President of the Royal Academy of Arts.
You can see her print Sgraffito 2 (2021) in our current exhibition Hockney to Himid: 60 Years of British Printmaking until April 2022.
This article was written by Salter in 2017 for our The Woodcut: From Durer to Now exhibition and published in the Gallery Magazine.