Pathways: The Evolution of Japanese Buddhist Prints

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    Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1797-1861)Casting an Invocation on the Waves at Kakuda in Sado Province from the series “Abridged Illustrated Biography of the Founder”Japan, Edo period, 1835-1836Color woodblock printGift of James A. Michener, 1971(16094)

January 29, 2008 - March 31, 2008
James A. and Mari Michener Gallery (21)

Exhibition Overview

In conjunction with the exhibition The Dragon’s Gift: The Sacred Arts of Bhutan (February 23-May 23, 2008), the Academy will present a selection of Japanese Buddhist woodblock prints from the permanent collection. Spanning a period of seven hundred years, the Academy has Buddhist prints from as early as the Muromachi period (14th century).  This is a rare opportunity to see many of our finest prints, some of which have not been on display in over five years.

The spread of Buddhist teachings played a key role in the development of woodblock-printing technology, and the earliest surviving examples of printed texts in the world are East Asian Buddhist scriptures, predating their European counterparts by several centuries.  When Buddhism was introduced into Japan from Korea starting in the sixth century, woodblock printing soon followed, and Japanese Buddhist prints can be traced back to the eighth century, during the Nara period. Together with paintings and sculptures, prints of Buddhist deities were essential tools in the transmission of Buddhist doctrine and ritual practice. For example, woodblocks were used in the temple complex of Mt. Köya, a center of Japanese Shingon Esoteric (Tantric) Buddhism established by Kükai (Köbö Daishi, 774-835) to produce both texts and printed images of Buddhist deities and mandalas (diagrams of the spiritual universe). Such printed materials served as visual guides and objects for daily worship.

Woodblock-printing technology continued to develop over time, and its techniques would eventually be used in the production of popular art and literature by the 17th century. In addition to early Buddhist images, ukiyo-e prints by the Edo-period master Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1797-1861) depicting the life of Monk Nichiren (1222-1282) also will be shown in the Japan Gallery.