After centuries of isolation, the opening of Japan during the Meiji period (1868–1912) also marked the beginning of a nationwide push for modernization of the country’s culture, industry, and governance. This ideological shift is apparent in the visual arts of the era, and especially in Japan’s woodblock prints of the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Split into the shin hanga (New Prints) and sosaku hanga (Creative Prints) movements, artists began to emphasize Western stylistic influences in their images. While the shin hanga movement relied on a traditional collaboration between the artist, woodblock carver, printer, and publisher, the sosaku hanga movement defined itself by the independent efforts of its artists who designed, cut, and printed their own works. After World War II, shin hanga declined in popularity as those associated with the movement grew older, while popular taste on the part of the Japanese people, and the American occupying forces, fostered the shift toward works in the sosaku hanga style.
Stylistically modern, the shin hanga on display touch on various themes, including the national push for industrial modernization, nostalgia for the past, and the reworking of traditional subject matter, such as bijinga (beautiful women), in prints and paintings. While shin hanga marked both the continuation and transformation of the ukiyo-e tradition during the last years of the Meiji period and beginning of the Taisho (1912–1926), the sosaku hanga movement, emerging at the same time, drew heavily on Western painting styles within Japan as well as the work of European artists such as Munch, Kandinsky, and Gauguin. Throughout the twentieth century, individual artists continued to produce these creative prints, developing new forms of synthesis between modernity and tradition, specifically in the use of Buddhist iconography and calligraphic techniques. Drawn from the Museum’s permanent collection, these woodblock prints illustrate a hundred years of innovation on the part of Japanese artists as they incorporated new styles into their work, both from home and abroad.