Competing Currents woman with flowers


Japan’s printmaking landscape underwent an unprecedented tidal shift in the twentieth century. During the Edo period (1603–1867) a new market of middle-class patrons had encouraged artists to create expressive and iconic images for mass distribution. These prints, known as ukiyo-e (pictures of the floating world), became wildly popular not only in Japan but across the globe when the country opened to international trade in the mid-nineteenth century. By the beginning of the twentieth century, however, woodblock prints had largely fallen out of vogue. Mass-market newspapers and magazines had taken Japan by storm, and the popular woodblock prints of the previous century seemed to many a relic of the past.

Despite these shifts, two movements reinvigorated the public’s relationship with printmaking in both Japan and the West: shin-hanga (new prints) and sōsaku-hanga (creative prints). The former was defined by a nostalgia for the premodern while the latter, rejecting the past entirely, embraced modernist and avant-garde sensibilities. In both movements, however, printmakers were forced to reckon with the legacy of ukiyo-e, new influences from European art, and the demands of a rapidly evolving global market. Simultaneously, a complete overhaul of Japan’s public infrastructure, two world wars, and a series of cataclysmic natural disasters continually disrupted artistic pursuits.

Following differing politics and aesthetic ideals, twentieth-century Japanese printmakers responded to these events in varied and industrious ways, a fact reflected in the heterogeneity of their compositions. Though shin-hanga and sōsaku-hanga represent only a small part of a complicated evolution, these works provide a glimpse of the contested artistic currents that defined Japanese printmaking in the twentieth century.

Generous support for Competing Currents: 20th-Century Japanese Prints is provided by Elizabeth Lee.

Competing Currents: 20th-Century Japanese Prints is organized by the Clark Art Institute and curated by Oliver Ruhl, 2021 graduate of the Williams Graduate Program in the History of Art.