BEYOND THE WAVE
Art does not arise from disembodied thoughts but out of particular media and materials. In fact when we speak of aesthetic ideas, we are referring to ideas that are inseparable from feeling and even the sensory world, which are at the core of the meaning of the word aesthetic itself.
Thus a painter’s ideas develop out of handling paint, and even particular kinds of paint: the oil painter and the fresco painter do not think aesthetically in the same way, just as the carver and the modeller imagine the world differently. Subject and genre are also important. A still life painter such as Giorgio Morandi thinks through the arrangement of bottles and jars, while a landscape painter’s ideas arise out of the encounter with nature.
From the perspective of the viewer, in the same way, the aesthetic effect of a work is inseparable from its material form. A painting is not just an image of something but a pattern of pigments on a flat surface, a set of marks that can articulate the work’s constructive logic or affective engagement with its subject.
Printmaking is a particularly good illustration of this principle because the material process is so elaborate and may entail many steps before the final impression. Unlike a painting, which is built up progressively, prints involve lengthy preparation in advance, while the final impression is made in a single moment. That singularity and wholeness of the printed image is fundamental to its aesthetic appeal.
But each variety of printmaking will have its own particular resources and effects, from woodblock to engraving, from etching to aquatint. And Japanese woodblock is a complex and refined technique, employing multiple blocks for different hues. In Europe, multiple woodblocks were used only in a limited way, and only in monochrome, for the chiaroscuro woodcuts of the 16th century. Multiple colour blocks were not really used until the rise of colour linocuts, in a much simplified imitation of the Japanese practice, early in the 20th century.
In the Japanese ukiyo-e tradition, the artist would work with specialist block cutters, designing each image from the outset with the constraints of the woodblock medium in mind, which meant broadly conceiving the design in black outlines and flat colour areas.
The first thing the woodcutter had to do was to produce a key-block, which comprised the underlying black outline of the design. A copy of the black outline drawing was glued facedown to the block, and the paper moistened and rubbed away to leave the black ink outline on the block. The wood around that outline was South Wind, Clear Sky (Red Fuji) Bunya no Asayasu (Fumiya no Asayasu) then carefully cut out to leave only the outline standing, in reverse.
This block was then inked and produced the black outline of the design, now the right way around again. This first block would remain the first one used in the final printing process, but it was also employed to make further blocks for each of the colours to be used in the composition. The area that was to print as red, for example, would be determined and the rest of that block was cut away so only that section printed.
The result is a particular aesthetic effect in Lake Suwa in Shinano Province which forms are articulated in thin black outlines and areas of colour are printed as primarily flat. There is no modelling of the kind used in Western painting, or even in Western printmaking techniques such as engraving and etching. Part of the appeal of Japanese ukiyo-e prints, in fact, is the tension between often dramatic perspective effects, borrowed from Western art, and the flatness of individual forms.
All of these effects are beautifully exemplified in the work of Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849), one the greatest exponents of this art form, who in the course of his long career, and following Kitagawa Utamaro, helped to raise the coloured woodblock print from the status of a popular medium to something that could be enjoyed by the most refined connoisseurs.
The National Gallery of Victoria had the foresight to acquire some important pieces by Hokusai as early as 1909, including the famous Great Wave, and has continued to build its collection since then. For this exhibition additional works have been borrowed from the Japan
Katsushika Hokusai’s (1830-34)