Japanese Woodblock Print

How to find clues within a woodblock print

Woodblock prints often contain text, inscriptions and seals which give information about their subject matter and the date of publication.

 

The artist's signature:
Today we would look for the artist's handwritten signature to show that a modern print is the genuine article. But the signature on a Japanese ukiyo-e print is not handwritten, and its sole purpose is to tell us the name of the artist who designed the image. 


Usually, the artist's name is arranged in vertical groups of characters, which are read downwards and from right to left. Very often the signature is followed by ' ga', which means 'designed by'.  On this print the signature appears in a little frame (called a cartouche) and reads Ici'eisai Yoshitsuya ga. 

 

The date of a picture:
Often you will see a date seal,  which tells the month and year that the print was made. Before 1873, the Japanese calendar was based on the Chinese one, with years calculated on a twelve year cycle, and named after animals. On this print the date seal tells us that the print was produced in the eighth month of a Dragon year, in this case 1857.

 

The publisher's seal:

The publisher used a seal. On this print, just below the date seal,  you can see the publisher's seal of Tsutaya Kichizo, a publisher from Edo,(Tokyo) who is recognised by his seal which is a leaf below a triple-peaked Fuji, with a small circle in the centre peak.


In 1842, laws were passed which meant that all prints had to be submitted to a censor for approval and sometimes you will also see a  censor's seal on a print. 

 

The title:
The text at the top of the image gives the title of this image, and the series of prints from which it came. It tells us that we can see the Warriors Matano Gorô Kagehisa (right) and Sanada Yoichi Yoshitada (left), from the series 'Selected Grapplings of Famous Warrior Heroes' ( Buyû kômei kumiuchi erabi).

 

Look at the signature and other details using our interactive of the print.


Glossary:

Approval - permission to do something 
Calculated - to  work out a sum using maths
Censor - someone who decides whether to ban something 
Grappling - fighting and trying to use your strength against someone



 
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