Museum Hours
Thu: 1 PM–8 PM
Fri–Mon: 10 AM–5 PM
Tue–Wed: Closed
200 Larkin Street
San Francisco, CA 94102

The Printer's Eye: Ukiyo-e from the Grabhorn Collection

Feb 20, 2015 – May 10, 2015

The Printer’s Eye introduces rarely seen ukiyo-e, or “pictures of the floating world,” from the Grabhorn Collection—a superb assemblage of Japanese woodblock prints.

In Edo Period Japan (1615–1868), the phrase “floating world” evoked a pleasure-seeking way of life, free from everyday obligations. Ukiyo-e depicted the many public entertainments available to residents of Edo (present-day Tokyo), often focusing on the city’s Kabuki theaters and the Yoshiwara—Japan’s most famous pleasure quarter. The prints in The Printer’s Eye document the leisure activities, fashions and celebrities of the floating world, including prominent courtesans, actors and even a teahouse waitress known throughout the districts for her beauty. The exhibition unpacks these carefully orchestrated scenes—dense with up-to-date styles and tongue-in-cheek references to Edo popular culture—and provides an “insider look” at their coded meanings, as well as the techniques behind their beautiful and complex designs.

Unlike the paintings in Seduction: Japan’s Floating World—a concurrent exhibition focusing on artwork generated largely for the upper class—the prints in The Printer’s Eye were mass-produced, and available for about the cost of a bowl of noodles. Today, however, they are priceless—many of the rare examples on display provide the only remaining evidence of a given design. The exhibition opens with 56 prints, and on March 30, 32 prints will be replaced by a fresh selection. Be sure to visit twice to view all 88 works.


The Development of Printmaking Techniques

Inexpensive, mass-produced prints were one of the primary modes of public communication in Edo-period Japan (1615–1868), and were commonly used as advertisements for Edo’s entertainment and pleasure districts.

The desire to keep up with ever-changing fashions and celebrities spurred the rapid development of Japanese printmaking, from simple black and white illustrations to dazzling, multicolor feats.

Edo-period prints were produced by a team of specialists working under the direction of a publisher. Each print began with an artist’s original design, brushed in ink, or ink and colors, on paper. That design was affixed to a block of wood, and a carver would carefully remove everything except outlines and patterns, which were left in relief. The printer would then apply ink and place a sheet of paper on the carved surface, rubbing the back of the sheet with a round tool called a baren to transfer an imprint of the design.

Hunting for fireflies, 1767–1768, by Suzuki Harunobu (1725?–1770). Woodblock print; ink and colors on paper. Courtesy of Asian Art Museum, San Francisco, Gift of the Grabhorn Ukiyo-e Collection, 2005.100.29.

The earliest prints appeared in books as monochrome ink illustrations, but by the late 1600s publishers were selling single-sheet prints of floating world themes. Hand-colored Japanese prints—called “vermillion pictures” (beni-e)—appeared in the early 1700s, borrowing their coloring from safflower petals and light green grass sap.

Starting around 1744, carvers added registration guide marks to the blocks, allowing printers to align their paper on multiple blocks, each of which could add a different color to the design. Using this multiple block method, full-color printing was possible by the mid-1760s. These new multicolor prints are called “brocade pictures” (nishiki-e), as they resemble colorful silk brocades.

Edo Celebrities

The prints featured in The Printer’s Eye: Ukiyo-e from the Grabhorn Collection showcase the innovative approaches artists developed to represent the celebrities of Edo’s entertainment and pleasure districts.

Street scenes, full-length depictions, close-up portraits (a trend that began in the late 1780s), and behind-the-scenes glimpses offer viewers an imagined window into the world inhabited by popular actors and courtesans. Promoting and celebrating these stars was central to the work of print publishers and designers, who strove to depict the latest upcoming productions and entertainment trends.

The actor Ichikawa Danzo IV in a Shibaraku role, by Katsukawa Shunsho (1726–1792). Woodblock print; ink and colors on paper. Courtesy of Asian Art Museum, San Francisco, Gift of the Grabhorn Ukiyo-e Collection, 2005.100.49.

As new theatrical productions opened, publishers released prints of the actors in bold costumes and dramatic makeup. Theater fans could instantly recognize their favorite stars by looking at the crests or logos—a mark of their acting lineage—on the player’s sleeves. Like actors, highly ranked courtesans were local celebrities, and the subject of countless Edo-period prints. With their emphasis on attractive features and stylish attire, prints of courtesans appealed not only to men throughout the city, but also acted as fashion guides for many urban women.

Coded Meanings

Though beautiful, Edo-period prints can be difficult to decode by the modern viewer.

What might at first appear to be a simple image often turns out to contain coded messages for those “in the know,” including playful references to the many popular amusements and celebrities associated with the floating world.

Monk Kisen, from the series Six Poetic Immortals, approx. 1770–1829, by Chobunsai Eishi (1756–1829). Woodblock print; ink and colors on paper. Courtesy of Asian Art Museum, San Francisco, Gift of the Grabhorn Ukiyo-e Collection, 2005.100.89.

Many prints allude to a seasonal activity popular among urban residents of the time—outings on Boys’ Day (5/5 in the lunar calendar) or celebrations of the Star Festival (7/7 in the lunar calendar), to take just two examples. Seeing these images, viewers might have recalled similarly festive occasions, or pictured themselves as a print’s attractive subject, dressed to the nines and freed for a while from everyday obligations.

Themes from classical literature are often cited in prints, and more often, parodied. The combination of “high” and “low” culture was popular among Edo-period artists, and widely enjoyed by contemporary audiences. Many Edo-period prints feature heroes and heroines of the 10th-century Tales of Ise or allude to the romantic exploits of the 11th-century novel The Tale of Genji—with characters dressed in modern costumes. Sly games of tongue-in-cheek inference carried a special appeal within a culture that celebrated wit, double identities and hidden agendas.

The Printer’s Eye: Ukiyo-e from the Grabhorn Collection features a total of 88 exquisite prints, along with the “insider knowledge” you’ll need to interpret the fascinating stories beneath each unique and complex design.

Organizers & Sponsors

The Printer’s Eye: Ukiyo-e from the Grabhorn Collection was organized by the Asian Art Museum.

Presentation is made possible with the generous support of The Bernard Osher Foundation and The Akiko Yamazaki and Jerry Yang Fund for Excellence in Exhibitions and Presentations.