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Censorship and Innovation: The Precarious Balance of Bakumatsu Prints

Rosina Buckland 
National Museum of Scotland

The planning for the first ever special exhibition of Japanese woodblock prints from the National Museum of Scotland (opening October 2013) has revealed many intriguing but little-known works. Though cataloguing of the collection of approximately 4,000 sheets was completed by B.W. Robinson in the early 2000s, only now is the data being digitized, with a view to ultimate release via the Museum’s website, in conjunction with digital photography by the Art Research Center, Ritsumeikan University. Acquired in 1886, the strength of the collection lies in the immediately preceding decades, the bakumatsu period lasting from around 1840 to 1880, with prints published in both Edo and Osaka.
Bakumatsu prints are often neglected in favour of the earlier masters, or the focus is on the masterpiece series by Hiroshige and Hokusai. Artists at this time were constrained to develop new strategies to avoid the stringent censorship regulations introduced in 1842 as part of the Tenpō Reforms. They responded by creating innovative and sometimes daring designs. Prints of this period are also distinguished by their outstanding technical quality, where artists, block cutters and printers demonstrated their complete mastery of the medium. Each sheet is filled with complex designs in rich colours, often with special effects taken from deluxe surimono. Publishers issued sets of prints on an unprecedented scale, many possessing a significant retrospective element, indicating a consciousness that ukiyo-e itself was part of a long, distinguished tradition.
The exhibition will be a rare opportunity to focus more closely on this momentous period. In my presentation, I will examine these works to show how cultural producers in Japan were responding to a time of economic and political uncertainty, striving to maintain a precarious balance among aesthetic appeal, marketability and compliance with the censors’ rules.

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