collaborative design in a floating world


With the end of the policy of Sakoku (seclusion or “closed country”) in the 1850’s, Western trade began to flow to and from Japan beyond the restricted Dutch East Indies trade enclave in Nagasaki and Europeans began to visit Japan in larger numbers.

While porcelain and lacquerware had been exported by the Dutch for years, the commonplace art form of woodblock prints now began to be exported to the West. Sir Rutherford’s Alcock’s collection of woodblock prints formed part of the Japanese section of the International Exhibition in London in 1862. And his book about Japan, The Capital of the Tycoon (1863) further popularized the art form.

In The Well Of The Great Wave Of Kagawa

Woodblock prints have their origins in China and Buddhist art and scripture from as early as the eight century AD. But woodblock print art was popularised in Japan during the Edo period, 1603-1867. Subject matter such as famous courtesans or kabuki actors was popular at this time. But landscapes, birds and city scenes later became hugely popular.

The school of art best known in the West is the Ukiyo-e woodblock prints. The Japanese concept of Ukiyo (or “floating world”) came from Buddhism. The Buddhists taught that worldly pleasures were transient and it encouraged worldly detachment, stemming from the belief that this would lead to understanding and enlightenment.

In Edo (now Tokyo), this concept was twisted to the idea that if material joys were fleeting, why not enjoy them to the fullest. The woodblock prints became mass-produced celebrations of these joys, Ukiyo-e; scenes of the floating world.

View of Mount Fuji, Hiroshige

Masters of this period were Hishikawa Moronoby (1615-1694), Suzuki Harunobu(1725-1770) who was the first to use full color printing, Kitagawa Utamaro(1753-1806), Toshusai Sharaku, Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849) and Ando Hiroshige(1797-1858).

Several years ago I had the pleasure of visiting an exhibition of Hiroshige’s work at the Royal Academy of Arts in London. While it’s possible that ‘The Great Wave’ by Hokusai is the most well known woodblock print image in the West. Hiroshige is famous for his series of travelogue landscapes, such as Fifty-three Stations of the Tōkaidō (1833 – 1834) and 100 Famous Views of Edo (1856 – 1858). Prints such as these influenced the floating world later created by Impressionist painters, such as Monet and Van Gogh.


While Hiroshige and Hokusai are the named artists (or brands), the woodblock print art form is produced from a close collaboration of specialists, rather than the work of an individual artist.

The artist identifies the subject matter and sketches out ideas. These may be very loose line representations that require interpretation by a wood carver, who is the next member of the collaborative team. The wood carver creates elements of the final image on separate wooden blocks. When these have been completed the blocks are passed to the printer who works with the artist to agree colour inking on each separate block.

Drum BRidge - Hiroshige

The finished image is created through the perfect matching of position and use of colour printed from each block. Once the finished image is approved by the artist, seals of authenticity and origination are added to the print run of final art. The final member of the team is the publisher who commissions the artist, agrees the general subject matter and pays for the printing and distribution of the work prior to sale.

The resulting art form is a work that none of the individual collaborators are able to create on their own. And the finest examples sold tens of thousands of copies in the artist’s own lifetime.

Perhaps true participation, co-creation and collaboration may well pre-date some of the claims made by enthusiastic recent web 2.0 commentators?

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