To the relatively young (we’re talking the baby boomers generation onwards) of today, we might consider our era of globalisation and the subsequent international exchange of ideas to be uniquely our experience. Widespread and affordable transportation, in the form of commercial airplanes, has made travel available to as many people as possible in the history of humanity. We can now take off from any major city in the world and arguably traverse the globe in under 24 hours, if we felt like it. The internet has also meant instant and near total communication with anyone who has an unrestricted connection, while advances in mobile phones, computers, GPS systems and programs (Facebook, Twitter) have meant that we are the wired generation. But this interplay of ideas existed long before electricity, even. Not quite that far back in history French painter Paul Gauguin was influenced by an art force which would forever shape his oeuvre: Japanese block prints, or Ukiyo-e.

As our Gauguin biography notes, Ukiyo-e had a significant influence on the artist. But exactly what did the art form and technique concern? The word “ukiyo” is literally translated as “floating world” in English and refers to an ideal similar to what the Romantic poets sought to caputre: ukiyo-e artists and their work were interested in the fleeting beauty of the world, with themes of impermanence and evanescent beauty. Ukiyo-e was not a “new” art form in Gauguin’s day. It was first produced in the 17th century and reached its peak of its popularity in artistic circles of Edo (modern day Tokyo) in the second half of the 17th century (to this day they are still produced) before they were exported to Europe.

The reason for the Ukiyo-e’s popularity was due to its production process. Known as the Japanese woodblock, an artist master first produces a master drawing in ink, whereupon a tracing is produced and copied onto a block of wood. The block of wood is carved to create a mirror of the drawing. The block is then inked and used to print sheets of paper. For different colours different blocks were used and therefore different elements and portions of the master drawing were engraved onto different blocks. This technique had two results: first, it meant that Ukiyo-e paintings were made affordable and this led to its status as the first form of Japanese mass-produced art. Secondly, and in concern to Gauguin, the technique of wood blocking meant a painting had strong lines and flat, bold colour, a hallmark of Gauguin works which later led to the related style of “Cloisonnism”.

Gauguin paintings from 1887 to the early 1890s display the influence of Japanese block prints. The quintessential example of Cloisonnism is the Gauguin painting The Yellow Christ (1889). Here Gauguin produces what could be misconstrued to be a Japanese block print: pure colour is merely separate by black outlines, with hardly any attention paid to gradations of colour or classical perspective. In short, it looks like a painting produced by the block method due to its simplicity (at least in technique). Gauguin would of course later evolve his style towards Synthetism, as seen in his prominent later French colonial island inspired works.

While we don’t have ukiyo-e block prints on offer for sale, we can tell you that many more of Gauguin’s oil paintings and other artists produced ukiyo-e inspired works. Degas was one of them, as was Cezanne and even Picasso (albeit briefly). Browse around and see what you discover!