The Lunder Center galleries are closed today, July 17.
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.