It was the Spanish painter Pablo Picasso who once remarked: “To me there is no past or future in art. If a work of art cannot live always in the present it must not be considered at all.” Although Picasso was always greatly interested in distending form to its very limit and indeed produced his best work in the freedom he found by colliding hitherto distinct styles and registers, he would have surely recognised in the simple clarity of the woodblock and its plangent designs, work that could “live always in the present.”
In the apocalyptic traditions of European culture, history is viewed not as a circle as the Greeks saw it, passing from Golden Age to dark ages to Golden Age and back again, but as a journey towards a paradisiacal future. Paradise was often portrayed as a state of equality between man, beast and flower – in Jewish Day of Judgement traditions humanity on its last day sits down at a rich banquet, but our heads are replaced by animal heads – our final divine form is human, bird, fish and ox altogether. The art of the woodblock transplants future bliss into the present day – man transforms into animal and back again, samurai warriors take on the powers of the gods and great monsters of the sea lie just offshore.
If in Europe, we had the Renaissance and the immense flowering of the visual arts that followed in its wake, finding expression on canvas, velum paper, even on the high vaults of our cathedrals; the East experienced a parallel revolution in culture in the late medieval period and one of its main features was the invention of the woodblock.
Woodblock printing techniques are remarkably simple. First a wannabe artist would sketch out a design. It would then be sent to a carver, who would translate the vision onto the woodblock. It would then be forwarded to printers, who could then use it a template for as many prints as the client or artist might require.
Like Gothenburg’s invention of the printing press, which allowed ordinary people to engage for the first time in the project of high culture, in writing pamphlets and making posters, the woodblock has exerted a powerfully democratising force on Japanese life.
For the first time, the argot of everyday experience – men and women at work, washing, country life, sex, gossiping and cracking vulgar jokes – could be found alongside the great mythological themes of transformation, divine transcendence and superhuman strength. In delicate sketch work, vivid colours and bold lines, the woodblock artists animated the world into technicolour glory.