World still floating

One technique, different styles

When we hear the word 'woodblock print' (ukiyo-e), we immediately feel a whiff of Japanese art history dating back to the 17th century. Meanwhile, there are still (or used to be)wonderful weirdos in this world who use this technique to create their own contemporary images of the floating world. I invite you into the fascinating world of woodblock prints by Roman Klonek (Poland), Emil Orlik (Czech), Dennis Muraguri (Kenya) and Bertha Lum (US). Different countries, different styles, although the technique is one and the same.

On Japanese woodblock prints

Before I show you how non-Japanese artists use the Japanese woodblock technique, first a few words about the woodblocks themselves. Ukiyo-e is a type of Japanese art, a relief print, that vividly describes (literally depicts - e) the "floating world" (ukiyo) of people in the Japanese Edo period (1603-1867). You're probably familiar with the works of artists such as Hokusai, Hiroshige, Utamaro, Kuniyoshi and Sharaku, as they're still of continuing interest to woodblock print and Japan lovers today, and some of their works, such as the 'Great Wave in Kanagawa', are among the most famous examples of Japanese art in the world, reproduced by everyone on everything. It'll be interesting for some to learn that the woodblock prints are said to have found their way to Europe not only as works in their own right, but also as ... wrapping paper in which ceramics exported from Japan were wrapped. At least that's what the LifeWear magazine of the Japanese brand Uniqlo reports in its article Boston, Ukiyo-e and UT. That makes sense, because ukiyo-e was a common medium in 19th century Japan, much like our newspapers, which we ourselves used as a wrapping paper in our lives. So much for the Japanese woodblock print. Now it's time for more contemporary woodblock printmakers who haven't only reproduced the floating world of Japan as seen with their own eyes, but also created images that are completely far from Japan.

Roman Klonek

Roman Klonek's woodcuts are like travelling back in time to a boy's room in the 1990s full of retro comics, superheroes and bright colours. Or, if you prefer, propaganda posters from the dark times of Polish history. It's said that the origin of Roman Klonek's love of visual storytelling goes back to the cartoons from the 'Oswald the Lucky Rabbit' series that his father showed him. Later, his imagination was fired by Japanese anime films and original 19th century woodblock prints. "Japanese woodblock prints have this special kind of whimsicality ... and exoticism. They're full of hidden codes and secrets," he said in an interview with fellow artist Mark Murphy. "I realised that Japan is like a projection screen for me. I don't understand the country, even if I try, but for some reason I love it anyway." Welcome to the club.

Emil Orlik

I remember that a few years ago I first came across the work of the sadly deceased Emil Orlik in the Zwierciadło magazine. I read the article, cut it out and put it in a box with the feeling that his time would come. This Czech artist of Jewish origin visited Japan twice in the early 20th century. The first of these trips left a deep impression on him. While there, he not only encountered Japanese woodblock prints, but also learned various painting techniques from the artist Kanō Tomonobu. Orlik didn't limit himself to woodblock prints and lithographs; he sketched with pencil and coloured pencils and also painted with watercolours. It's interesting (and sad at the same time) that despite the fact that there is an abundance of his works in Poland, he has remained virtually unknown in the country to this day.

Dennis Muraguri

The woodcuts of Kenyan artist Dennis Muraguri are reminiscent of the explosion of colour familiar from Roman Kloska's works. His works show the colourful streets of Kenya, with the most important element for Dennis, which you'll find in almost every print, the matatu - the colourful Kenyan minibuses known for their bright colours and loud music. Through the woodcut technique, Muraguri uses bright colours and patterned backgrounds to show the unique style and personality of each matatu. The author says: "Without people, (a matatu) is just a vehicle. Only with people does it become a matatu'. Although minibuses objectively occupy a large part of the surface area of his works, people are the main subject of each painting - getting in and out of matatu, approaching the matatu, passing by or chatting next to the matatu. You can find out more about the author and his life on the pages of an online magazine WePresent.

Bertha Lum

The work of an American Bertha Lum, on the other hand, is a beautiful blend of Japanese woodblock prints and Western Art Nouveau. Before Lum came into contact with Japanese woodblock prints, she first discovered the work of Arthur Wesley Dow (1857-1922), who was extremely fascinated by Hokusai's woodblock prints. She visited Japan for the first time during her seven-week (sic!) honeymoon in 1903, but she was very disappointed as the heyday of ukiyo-e was just ending at the beginning of the 20th century. However, she managed to get into an old wood engraving workshop where she bought a whole assortment of carving and printing tools for her own art studio. In the US, another disappointment awaited her, as she soon found that without proper training and the support of Japanese woodblock artists, she could create little on her own. And so she decided to return to Japan. In 1907 she found her way to the woodcarving workshop of Igami Bonkotsu, with whom she studied relief carving for several months and who, after being convinced of her talent, recommended her to the master printer Nishimura Kamakichi, with whom she again worked and studied for four weeks. Thanks to these experiences, she soon reached a masterful artistic level. Her work attracted the interest of art connoisseurs not only from the USA but also from Asia. In 1912, she was the only woman admitted to the International Art Exhibition in Tokyo. She also exhibited her works in Chicago and New York. Her love of Asian art led her back to Japan and also to Beijing in 1922, where she learned the local woodcut technique (somewhat different from the Japanese). For the rest of her life, she shuttled back and forth between the US, Japan and China, and her biography could easily serve as the script for an entire film. Today, Lum's works are a rare commodity on the market. Some of them can still be bought at auction houses. They can also be found in many important museums in the USA, for example the Achenbach Foundation in San Francisco or the Library of Congress.

Unbreakable fascination

The fascination with ukiyo-e is not floating away. There are so many artists, especially Japanese ones, still practising woodcut that if this article was about them, not about non-Japanese artists, it could in principle be endless. It's definitely worth mentioning such non-Japanese names as Lee Ufan (Korea), James Jean (Taiwan), Martin Whatson (Norway) and N. S. Harsha (India), who are sponsored by the Adachi Institute Contemporary Ukiyo-e and whose works you can see in the nito nito gallery.

Emil Orlik, Japanese Wood Cut, 1900-1901. Via Manggha Museum of Japanese Art and Technology.