T he Fine Japanese Prints auction is a defining moment for the cultural significance of Japanese woodblock prints in London. Observers have made inevitable comparisons between the Sokoku period of seclusion in the mid-19th century and what has now become known as the neo-Sokoku period in terms of an evolving western interest in Japanese art. As Japan finally reopens to international travellers, there is a renewed focus on the quiet elegance and delicate craftsmanship of ukiyo-e, which has been further catalysed by the Hokusai exhibition The Great Picture Book of Everything at The British Museum as well as the current, critically acclaimed Japan: Courts and Culture exhibition from The Royal Collection Trust.
The delicate techniques and traditions established by masters like Hokusai, Hiroshige and Hasui assert their longevity as we consider their influence on modern and contemporary artists. This sale places emphasis on seasonal and forever captivating snowscapes, which serve as a reminder of the profound influence of Japanese woodblock prints on many of the movements and mediums of western art since trade was reopened in the 19th-century. Alongside many of his peers, Claude Monet famously collected numerous snowscapes amongst other themes of woodblock prints by prominent artists like Katsushika Hokusai and Utagawa Hiroshige, whose work is particularly prevalent within this sale. The current Monet - Mitchell exhibition of Monet’s work in dialogue at Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris is a reminder of the subdued colour palette and focus on natural beauty, which reflected his devotion to collecting Japanese woodblock prints. He brought that into his own work as he painted in his Giverny studio, the very place where he invited travelling Japanese art dealers to view his work and eventually acquired the majority of his collection of prints. Furthermore, influential contemporary Japanese photographers like Hiroshi Sugimoto and Nobuyoshi Araki, with his recent Pinault Collection retrospective in Paris, continue to reflect formal and thematic elements of Japanese woodblock prints across their work with their serene landscapes and urban scenes.
Another consistent theme across the sale is the prevalence of aizuri-e, which are exquisite monochromatic blue works made with Prussian blue pigment brought from Europe at the end of the Edo period. This interplay between east and west within the content of woodblock prints illustrates an evolving cross-cultural dialogue. Not only are they harmonious and impressive works, but we also see the prominence of that vivid pigment in international exhibitions such as Yves Klein currently on display at the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in Denmark. Whether through snowscapes or urban landscapes, the highlights of Fine Japanese Prints take us across the most beautiful landscapes of Japan and inspire us all to return there