The delicate art of Japanese printing

Japanese printing has been a delicate gem for centuries. The Art and History Museum in Brussels shows how it was modernized in the 20th century. The prints remained as beautiful as the stylish display shows.

The Japanese graphics from the 20th century are called shin hanga. New printing means it literally. It is the successor to ukiyo-e, the traditional prints popular in Japan in the 18th and 19th centuries. Hokusai’s drawing of the Great Wave is a famous example.

The essence

  • Shin hanga is the term for Japanese graphics from the 20th century.
  • The Art and History Museum in Brussels provides a comprehensive overview.
  • The prints are made with woodcuts.
  • The subjects range from women to landscapes to modern life.

The Japanese prints are woodcuts, a labor-intensive technique that came under pressure in the late 1800s. Photography and lithography made printing easier. It suited the publishers, because Japanese prints were very popular. With tourists in the first instance, but also with Western artists such as Vincent van Gogh.

But not everyone in Japan was happy with the modernization. The publisher Watanabe Shozaburo was deeply saddened that woodblock printing was in decline. He rebelled against it and continued to make woodcuts. But he was not nostalgic. He attracted Japanese artists who embraced modernity. This is how the shin hanga was born.

Itō Shinsui, ‘After a Bath’, January 1917.

It is no coincidence that the Museum of Art and History in Cinquantenaire Park in Brussels is organizing a large exhibition about shin hanga – it spans the period 1900-1960. The museum has a large collection of Japanese prints. This dates back to 1905, when the museum acquired the collection of the collector Edmond Michotte, a close friend of the opera composer Giacomo Rossini. This included 4,666 Japanese prints. The museum’s collection was then supplemented with around 7,500 prints, old and new.

The exhibition draws on his own collection, a Dutch private collection and the collection of the grandson of the publisher Watanabe. There is a lot to see in the exhibition, but you never have the feeling that it is overloaded, on the contrary. The scenography does the prints justice.


Guest curator Chris Uhlenbeck chose a thematic division. In this way, the tibia opens slowly. It was a Western artist who brought Japanese graphics into the 20th century. In 1915, the publisher Watanabe saw an exhibition of watercolors by the Austrian painter Fritz Capelari in Tokyo. He painted Japanese women. Watanabe published prints of Capelari – they can be seen in the exhibition – and looked for Japanese artists who could make similar drawings.

One of them was Ito Shinsui. He captured the Japanese women on paper like no one else. But what is new about his drawings? Not the theme. Japanese graphics have depicted women for centuries. That’s the way. In the old prints, the women were depicted as geishas and courtesans, as if their main function was to please the man.

Not in Shinsui. He shows the women in their bathroom or on a terrace, pondering life. They seem to have broken away from submission to the man. This is reflected more explicitly later in the exhibition under the heading modern girls. There you can see on prints men and women (mogo and moga in Japanese) going out and enjoying an almost Western life.

Kasamatsu Shir, Spring Night, Ginza, 1934

Landscape is a recurring theme in Japanese graphics. “There is a big caesura between the 19th and 20th centuries. In ancient graphics, recognizable landscapes were printed, such as Mount Fuji, for example. That changed in the 20th century when the landscapes became anonymous. It was about the beauty of the image itself, no longer about recognisability’, says Uhlenbeck.

Natural elements play a major role in the landscape. Snow, rain, full moon, they appear often. And notice the reflections of light in puddles. The artists also specialized in that,’ says the curator.


The Shin hanga was hit hard on September 1, 1923. On that day, Japan was hit by a massive earthquake measuring 8.3 on the Richter scale. Tokyo and Yokohama were virtually wiped off the map. 100,000 were killed. Many publishers saw their woodcuts and prints go up in flames. That was how it was for Watanabe, who had to rebuild his publishing house from scratch. The earthquake still radiates on the art market. Prints from before 1923 are more valuable because they are rarer.

Uhlenbeck points to one of the rare drawings on display at the exhibition. ‘Now you pay 35,000 euros for it.’ It is expensive for a print that exists in several editions. The circulation is another difference between the old and the new printing. ‘The initiative to print prints always came from the publisher. L’art pour l’art did not exist. The circulation of the old prints could be as high as 15,000 copies. As long as there was demand and the woodcuts were usable, printing continued. Fewer impressions were printed on the tibia, usually a few hundred,’ says Uhlenbeck.

The technique of the woodcuts is explained in great detail in the middle of the exhibition. The artist creates a drawing which is transferred to transparent paper. The woodcutter starts. A new woodcut is made for each color. ‘There is no brush involved in the whole process to color the result,’ says Uhlenbeck.

Ohara Koson, ‘Crows by Moonlight’, 1927

This creates detailed and exquisite drawings. That it is real art – no doubt about it – is proven by a drawing by Natori Shunsen from 1926 of the star actor Kataoka Nizaemon XI. He took this as a starting point from a photo which hangs next to the drawing. This shows how much more depth and appearance the drawing has. This applies to virtually all drawings. Whether it is flowers, birds, a landscape or women, the prints seem to make reality more attractive.

‘Shin hanga, Japan’s new print, 1900-1960’runs until 15 January at the Art and History Museum in Cinquantenaire Park in Brussels

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