Japanese woodblock prints are highly collectable, they are prized for their unique and appealing style, as well as their long history which dates back over a thousand years. When traditional woodblock prints, also known as mokuhanga, face damage or deterioration, they require a specialist conservator who is experienced in this area.
Above: a detail from Under the Wave off Kanagawa by Katsushika Hokusai, 1830-32
Their specialist nature in conservation is due to sensitive materials which differ from the oil-based pigments of western art, such as handmade paper and water, vegetable or rice-based inks. With this in mind, it is important to fully understand the dangers which may face such a Japanese print, especially if it carries high sentimental, cultural, or monetary value.
The creation and influence of Japanese woodblock prints
Traditional Japanese prints were produced by teams of artisans in workshops, with the name of both the artist and the publisher being featured on the finished print. The artist would provide a drawing on thin paper which was then pasted onto a block of wood. The original drawing is destroyed in the process, as it is rubbed with oil until layers of paper pull away, leaving a guide to stencil in the wooden press. The artist did not cut the block themselves, instead, a specialist block-cutter carved away the non-inked areas of the drawing. The prints were then pressed onto the handmade paper manually.
Above: a selection of woodblock prints by Utamaro, Utagawa Kunisada and Shunbaisai Hokuei
The master of Japanese printmaking is widely considered to be Hokusai, who worked in various genres of Japanese art. His most famous and most recognisable woodblock print entitled ‘The Great Wave off Kanagawa’ was part of a series of 36 views of Mount Fuji dating to the late Edo period. The style of Japanese art that Hokusai belongs to is known as Ukiyo-e, which was highly popular between the 17th and 19th centuries. Ukiyo-e refers to “pictures of the floating world”, originating with depictions of beautiful women, city life, and kabuki actors; it later focused on scenes of nature, such as Hokusai’s famous wave. As ruling classes strictly limited the space for the homes of lower social classes in Japan, the small size of ukiyo-e prints made them ideal for decoration.
“My studio’s quite tolerable, mainly because I’ve pinned a set of Japanese prints on the walls that I find very diverting. You know, those little female figures in gardens or on the shore, horsemen, flowers, gnarled thorn branches.”
– Vincent Van Gogh to his brother Theo, 28 November 1885
Hokusai’s genre of woodblock prints was highly influential in western art at the end of the 19th century following Japan reopening trade with the rest of the world. The impressionists, including Degas, Manet, and Monet were all in admiration and included elements of this in their own work. Van Gogh not only copied prints by Hiroshige, but one of his most famous works ‘Starry Night’ is said to have been inspired by ‘The Great Wave off Kanagawa’.
Above: a detail from Poem by Akazome Emon, from the series One Hundred Poems Explained by the Nurse (Hyakunin isshu uba ga etoki) by Katsushika Hokusai, 1921
Surprisingly, the largest collections of ukiyo-e woodblock prints can be found outside of Japan. The British Museum began collecting Japanese prints in 1860 and by the 20th century had around 70,000 artworks. Until the opening of the Ukiyo-e Museum in 1982, The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston had the largest collection of over 100,000 prints.
Above: a detail from a woodblock print by Tsuneshige, 1900
Protecting Japanese woodcut prints
Whilst western prints relied on oil for the binder in coloured pigments, Japanese prints use water or vegetable-based inks or pigments held in rice paste, making them very sensitive to moisture disturbances and extremely high risk of fading from light exposure. The paper they sit upon is also frequently handmade and may be particularly brittle due to age or environment.
The pigments or dyes in woodblock prints can begin to fade in low levels of light, so long term display is complicated by this vulnerability. When Hokusai’s ‘The Great Wave off Kanagawa’ and ‘Red Fuji’ were displayed at the British Museum, research suggested that if these prints were displayed for just three months at 50 LUX, they would have to be stored in the dark for at least a year before being exposed again. When they were displayed, it was only for 20% of the time to only a dim amount of light.
The handmade paper of Japanese prints may also deteriorate entirely upon exposure to acidic framing materials, which may simply discolour modern paper. If a woodcut print must be framed, it is highly recommended that UV reducing glass is in place, as well as non-acidic materials in the surround or mount board with a neutral PH level.
Humidity can lead to the movement of paper fibres which are known to shift depending on the levels of moisture in the air. Mounts should be ensured to be flexible, as the paper can tear under drastic changes in humidity levels. As the paper was produced in a humid environment, the humidity recommendation for Japanese woodblock prints is higher than a western work on paper. A humidity of between 50%-60% will help to reduce risk from a dry atmosphere, but this should go no higher than 70% to avoid issues from mould and foxing.
Above: a detail from Hibiscus Mutabilis and Jay by Hiroshige, 1840
Elements of a print that were created with rice paste may face damage relating to insect infestation or mould, therefore a controlled and sterile environment is very important for their preservation. In some cases, unique three-dimensional elements make these artworks more complicated to restore and conserve. Fragile embellishments include the use of embossed lines and finely ground metallic pigments which have been set in glue. Appropriate framing or storage mounts are required to prevent any rubbing, disruption or deterioration of these areas.
For maximum protection, which should be considered for highly valuable prints, a storage solution that is in a controlled environment and completely free of natural or artificial light is recommended.
Japanese woodblock print restoration
When faced with tears from accidental damage or due to the rapid humidity changes which can cause the paper to pull away from constraints, our conservator is able to reduce and in some cases vanish the visual disturbance, as well as bringing stability back to the piece. Japanese tissue paper is used in all manner of paper conservation, as it is very thin but very durable. A print can be lined on this to return strength to weakened areas.
Staining from dirt, grime, or airborne contaminants such as nicotine, can be reduced and gently cleaned with a solution that is tailored to the materials. This is performed on small sections as the woodblock print contains such fragile elements. As well as reducing the disturbance of the artwork, our conservator is also clearing away any dangerous acidic elements which may be contained in the staining. When faced with water damage, any running ink can be gently cleaned using the same methods as in cleaning a stain.
Above: a detail from Goyu, Tabibito Ryujo by Hiroshige, 1833-34
Professional conservation cleaning methods can be used for the discolouration caused by acidic mount boards and framing, which can be combined with the stabilisation of any areas which have faced acidic deterioration. This will also clear any threat to the surface of the piece, which could continue to contaminate the paper if it is left.
If there are elements of prior or current insect infestation, our conservation team can eliminate the threat, as well as restoring the small areas which may have been eaten away. Mould and foxing can also be treated to clear away active spores and reduce the chances of this issue reoccurring.
If you have any queries about the restoration or preservation of Japanese woodblock prints, please contact our team today via [email protected] and we will be happy to help.