Under the Cherry Blossom — Japanese Woodblock Prints

The Under the Cherry Blossom — Japanese Woodblock Prints exhibition takes the viewer on an exciting journey to Japan in the Edo period (1600–1868). The largest share of the exhibition’s woodblock prints date to the Edo period. During the Edo period Japans distinct cultural life had space to develop.

  • 6.10.2022–15.1.2023
1st floor
Tickets: with a museum ticket
Utagawa Kunisada (1786–1864): The actors Nakamura Tomijuro II, Onoe Baiko and Ichikawa Danjuro VIII in the play Umeyanagi sakigake soshi (Tale of the Early Flowering Plum and Willow Trees), 1854. Colour woodblock print. Photo: Finnish National Gallery / Jenni Nurminen.

Under the Cherry Blossom

The Finnish National Gallery’s fine and in many ways unique collection of Japanese woodblock prints contains approximately 900 works. The exhibition brings together woodblock prints from artists of the Utagawa school, particularly the greatest masters of the period, such as Kunisada, Toyokuni and Kuniyoshi. The collection was last exhibited in 2000. Now, after more than twenty years, the Sinebrychoff Art Museum presents a unique opportunity to enjoy these woodblock prints. Over 140 works in the National Gallery collection are on display at the exhibition.

The sakura or cherry blossom tree has a particular significance in Japanese culture: the circle of life is interwoven with the trees’ annual cycle. The most important festival of the year is hanami, flower viewing, which is timed for the start of the flowers’ blooming. The sakura trees appear in many visual themes: graceful female figures walk under the trees, and the decorative blossoming trees curl in the background to kabuki theatre players. The world of the woodblock prints takes us to the very sakura trees themselves.

Ukiyo-e woodblock prints

Most Japanese woodblock print art is known as ukiyo-e, which refers to the art that was highly popular in Edo (now Tokyo), the capital during the period of the same name. Ukiyo, the “transient world” and seizing the ephemeral moment and its experiences, became common in the themes and moods of woodblock prints. The pictures emphasize their contemporaries’ idealized world of entertainment and beauty, the popular culture of the time or a dream world – instead of the real one. Discrete everyday themes that depicted attractive pleasures became established as subjects, such as geishas, tea-room beauties and kabuki theatre actors. Later, landscapes and nature also became popular subjects.

The prints’ aesthetics continue to excite people in the present day. Their rhythmic arrangements, delightful colour surfaces and strong and sensitive lines direct the gaze. The modern visitor perhaps also relates to the idea of the impermanence of the moment and flowing with time — the idea that it is important to stop for the moments life offers.

The masters of the woodblock prints

Utagawa Kunisada (Toyokuni III) (1786–1864) was remarkably productive and in addition to kabuki pictures (yakusha-e) designed other ukiyo-e themes, such as pictures of beautiful women (bijin-ga).

Kunisada was a student of Toyokuni I. In the Japanese tradition, the student was given a name in which the first part came from the last part of the master’s name. Inheriting the old and illustrious name was a notable event. In Kunisadas Name-change Celebrations (1860) the kabuki actor Nakamura Fukusuke changes his name to Nakamura Shikan. In addition to the actors, two servers are present. Also depicted are gifts from the fishmonger or the geishas of Shin Yoshiwara or Shinagawa.

In addition to theatrical themes, the exhibition features intricate landscapes, such as by Katsushika Hokusai (1760–1849). Hokusai is described as a recluse whose life was completely filled with drawing and painting from morning to evening. In his later years, he signed his works “the old man who is mad about drawing”.
Painting Mount Fuji became almost an obsession for Hokusai from the 1830s on. Mount Fuji, Fuji-san, was a holy mountain and object of worship. It symbolized permanence and immortality. This immortality was achieved through the pictures of Mount Fuji known by later generations. Having completed the series at the age of 71, he said he “understood to some extent” the structure of nature, plants and animals and estimated that by 110 years old he would reach the stage “when every dot and line of mine lives”.
In addition to Hokusai, Ando Hiroshige (1797–1858), became another woodblock print landscape master. Hiroshige characterized his own production as a “descriptor of reality”. Hiroshige looked at the landscape through a poet’s eyes. Details were important, but all that was not elegant could be omitted.
“Since the space in the sketchbook was quite small, it was difficult to copy down everything and though there are many things that I have condensed, the composition is exactly like a true reflection of the scenery, so those who cannot travel can find some pleasure in them. Please excuse the clumsiness of my brush.”

The history of the Woodblock prints

The art of printing with wooden blocks first came to Japan from China. It was used to produce religious texts and, gradually, for illustrating texts in general. It was only in the late seventeenth century that woodblock print art became its own form of expression in Japan.

Woodblock prints were for many years black and white. Colours were painted into the finished print. The printing blocks became coloured in the mid-eighteenth century, and the popularity of woodblock prints grew.

Painting and poetry were not considered separate art forms in Japan. Woodblock prints also feature poems, and sometimes the prints illustrate poetry.

Suzuki Harunobu (c. 1725– 1770) brought to Edo a technique in which multicoloured prints were produced using several blocks. Before then, black-and-white prints had been coloured by hand. At the same time, Harunobu created a new style. The pictures were poetic and the colours restrained. The public were highly excited by Harunobu’s woodblock prints. The beauty of the new and attractive colour prints was reminiscent of kimono fabrics. They began to be called nishiki-e, brocade pictures.

Among woodblock artists, the name was often bequeathed from master to student. Schools or families which continued a certain style or approach were formed. Occasionally, an artist would consider himself sufficiently independent and change his name from that of a school to one of a particular form.

The Edo period

Edo (present-day Tokyo) was the administrative and political capital of the country. It also became the centre of this new urban culture. Edo was the country’s administrative and political capital, but also the center of cultural life. At the end of the eighteenth century, Edo was already a bustling city with a population of over a million.

During the Edo period, as at other times in Japan’s history, social order was strictly categorized. The soldier class, the samurai, were a dominant social group. The samurai numbered only around 300, but two-thirds of the city were given over to residences and gardens for the samurai class. The rest of the city’s area was divided up between the rest of the population, temples and public streets.

The flourishing of woodblock prints is linked to the birth of urban life and the bourgeoisie. During the Edo period, the middle class became wealthier. In addition to their everyday needs, the new bourgeoisie could afford other things. Wealthy private collectors could also order drafts of their favourite themes from artists and have prints made on that basis. The ukiyo, an urbanized and liberated atmosphere, was born. There were hundreds of woodblock publishers, and competition was fierce. At the height of woodblock prints’ popularity, they could be printed in runs of up to 1,000 copies.

Kabuki theatre was a popular form of entertainment in Edo. Three theatres operated concurrently in the city, their repertoires changing every second or third month. The programme lasted all day, during which time several different plays were put on. Spectators arrived and left over the course of the day.
The pictures highlight fashionable dress and hair styles. The beautiful women in kabuki pictures are men. Female characters were played by onnagata actors. They specialized in interpreting women’s feelings and moods.

Increased travel created an enthusiasm for souvenirs. Pictures of famous places and roadside tea rooms and inns sold well, particularly on the sides of the main roads to Edo. Meisho-e, “pictures of famous places”, were born.

Woodblock prints’ journey to Europe

Gradually, the prints formed an inalienable part of Japanese life. They were affixed on walls, pasted on fans, printed as maps, news flyers, wrapping and decorative paper, advertising bills and of course as books and calendars.

Western artists fell in love with Japanese woodblock prints. They had a significant impact on the development of all Western art in the late nineteenth century.

The Hagelstam art gallery in Helsinki had held the first exhibition of Japanese woodblock art in Finland in 1897. The art exhibited was from the famous Paris art dealer Samuel Siegfried Bing (1838–1905). The Antell Delegation made a significant purchase in 1908 when it acquired a collection containing over 650 woodblock prints with the interest funds from H. F. Antell’s (1847–1893) bequest. The woodblock prints were acquired from Adolf Weigel’s antiquarian shop in Leipzig. The intermediary was Jean Poirot (1873–1924), lecturer in French at the University of Helsinki, who collected woodblock prints and had made some purchases from Weigel. Later, both the Ateneum’s and the Sinebrychoff Art Museum’s collections have been expanded through acquisitions and donations.