Woodblock Prints from the Permanent Collection

December 11 - March 13, 2022

Woodblock printing describes a relief process in which sharpened carving tools are used to carefully incise text or images into the flat surface of a wooden block. The uncarved areas of the design that now stand in relief are methodically inked and, with pressure, transferred; the recessed areas that were gouged away do not receive ink and remain blank in the printed composition.

Revolutionary contributions to the advancement of printing – together with the compass, gunpowder and papermaking – comprise the Four Great Inventions that emerged from ancient China. For centuries, numerous cultures had used hand-carved wooden blocks to ink patterns onto textiles or stamp symbolic marks and decoration into clay or wax. However, during the Tang dynasty (618-906 A.D.), a golden age of Chinese culture, woodblock printing techniques were first developed, perfected and applied to paper. Initially used to reproduce Buddhist religious texts and monochromatic manuscripts, the printmaking process became more complex, and the palette more expansive as multiple carved blocks were employed in a single pictorial image, each inked with a separate color.

An idea whose time had come, woodblock printing rapidly diffused throughout East Asia where it would remain the primary method for printing books and images until the 19th century. Across the Sea of Japan, mass-produced woodblock prints in the ukiyo-e genre flourished from the 17th to 19th centuries and became an iconic Japanese artform with enduring appeal. These scenes depicted “the floating world” of everyday Japan, characterized by bold compositions with dynamic lines, graphic shapes, flattened perspective and rich color.

Printing innovations also spread far and wide on the cross-cultural currents beginning to connect East Asia and Europe. As paper became increasingly available in the West, Europeans explored the creative possibilities of hand-carved, block-printed images and text. Movable type technology – invented in China and further mechanized in Korea – was revolutionized in Germany by Johannes Gutenberg’s printing press in the mid-15th century, which radically increased the demand for woodcut illustrations. When Japan’s isolationist foreign policy ended in the mid-19th century, Japanese art and culture, particularly ukiyo-e, captured the attention of many European artists. This influence extended to the Provincetown Printers, a Massachusetts seaside artist colony. There, early 20th century American modernists such as Edith Lake Wilkinson and Blanche Lazzell – both West Virginia natives – refined and popularized the single-block white-line color woodcut.

The omnipresence of our modern global print culture can obscure the chain of historical events that gave rise to the interconnected world of mass-printed materials that we know today. With an emphasis on modern and contemporary artistic woodcuts, Woodblock Printing from the Permanent Collection will illuminate pages from this rich history and demonstrate the ways artists continue to use this time-honored process as a vehicle for personal expression.

This exhibit is presented with support from The Isabelle Gwynn and Robert Daine Exhibition Endowment.

This program is presented with financial assistance from the West Virginia Department of Arts, Culture and History, and the National Endowment for the Arts, with approval from the West Virginia Commission on the Arts.

Woodblock Prints from the Permanent Collection

Katsushika Hokusai (Japanese, 1760-1849), Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji – Under the Wave off Kanagawa (The Great Wave), ca. 1830-1832. Woodcut on paper; 9 7/8 x 14 3/4 inches. Bequest of Charles H. Burkart in memory of his mother Rosamond Herriot Burkart, 2020.1.67.