Page:A history of Japanese colour-prints by Woldemar von Seidlitz.djvu/129

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Beginning of Wood-Engraving


be considered as the outcome of that great art which had been created in the seventeenth century by the painters of the popular school. Therefore, we are not to regard as its highest achievements those products of wood-engraving which most resemble European art, which challenge comparison with European productions, and hence are easiest for us to understand, but those which by virtue of their calligraphic and decorative character approach most nearly to the Japanese ideal of artistic greatness, dignity, and elegance, and at the same time attest the greatest individuality and creative power. This holds good especially of the work of two artists: Moronobu, the founder of the genus at the end of the seventeenth century, and Kiyonaga, the consummate master thereof, who at the end of the eighteenth century concentrated all the aims of this art up to that time into a carefully considered and in its kind perfect whole, not only as regards composition and colour, but also drawing and expression. These two will form the cardinal points of the following history. For it is due to their activity that this whole species of art, which, owing to its easy production and reproduction, was especially fitted to bring the sense for artistic enjoyment into the poorest homes, did not, on the other hand, succumb to the obvious perils of its familiarity with actors, courtesans, and low society, and degenerate into the farcical and vulgar, but remained worthy of the attention of intellectual and artistically cultivated circles.

Before outlining here the main features of the development of the Japanese woodcut, it is necessary to glance at the development of wood-engraving before it attained to actual independence. Wood-blocks for printing off written characters were used as early as the eighth century, but for pictorial representations not until the twelfth century, while no such prints earlier than the fourteenth century are actually traceable. A series signed with the name of the priest Riokin, for instance, bears a