Japanese art & design: pictorial narrative
Traditional Japanese pictorial decoration is conceptual rather than realistic, and reads from right to left. One picture may illustrate a sequence of events that occurred at different times. Western perspective systems are not always used and the size of buildings and figures sometimes indicates relative importance rather than suggesting foreground and background.
Japanese woodblock prints were made in vast quantities from the end of the eighteenth century onwards to meet growing popular demand. Subjects included the city, views of the Japanese regions, and historical and mythical subjects. Ukiyo-e ('the floating world') prints show the delightful and ever-changing world of urban life in which people engaged in leisure activities like going to plays, visiting restaurants, gathering fireflies and visiting the pleasure districts.
Woodblock prints were made by printing the separate areas of colour individually and with painstaking accuracy. The images concentrate on the use of line rather than attempting to show depth and there is often little differentiation between foreground and background. Another convention is that the edge of the picture is cropped in unexpected places, so that the subject seems to loom out of the frame in an energetic and dynastic way. When artists like Whistler and Toulouse-Lautrec began to study Japanese prints at the end of the nineteenth century, they found these ideas quite new and stunningly effective, and adopted similar approaches in their own work.