The special exhibition opens forty years after the opening of the new building, designed by Kunio Maekawa, on the Aachener Weiher, a building which gave the Museum of East Asian Art a new home after the destruction of its former premises in the Second World War.
To this day, the Japanese coloured woodblock print is among the art forms of the Far East which, thanks to the fashion for Japonisme, are familiar and popular in Europe, and therefore continue to be collected and traded. After more than 100 years, the Museum of East Asian Art has combed through its holdings of woodblock prints and for the first time viewed its collection of Japanese books and coloured woodblock prints in the round. The result is a selection of the most unusual and costly items, which are now being presented in a major special exhibition.
In addition to the primitive hand-coloured prints from the 18th century, the museum has a stock of 18th and 19th-century coloured woodblock prints depicting the world of the pleasure quarter and the kabuki theatre (ukiyo-e), depictions of historical warriors and heroes, landscape and cityscape prints from the famous series by Hokusai and Hiroshige, depictions of flowers, insects and fish, costly privately edited calendar pages (surimono), droll depictions of foreigners in Nagasaki, an extensive collection of prints of the Meiji era with illustrations of the Sino-Japanese War, and of the modern ‘new woodblock print’ or Shin Hanga since the Taisho era. This broad spectrum is supplemented by a collection of important books, among them rare first editions of the manga of Hokusai and books of instruction for amateur painters, with introductions to the stylistic individualities of the various schools of painting.
The variety and extent of the museum’s collection graphically illustrate the high status enjoyed by the Japanese woodblock print. Its perfection was not only a technical and economic, but above all a cultural and social revolution, which is perhaps comparable to the triumphal march of the computer in the information age. The woodblock print was a brilliant vehicle for conveying a variety of knowledge and information of all kinds to a demanding public hungry for information and enjoyment. It was the medium of a new, modern information culture.