In its oldest and most basic form, a printed image consists of black ink indirectly applied to paper.
In Japan, this method was developed by the 8th century and employed for commercial purposes beginning in the 17th century, with color printing becoming widespread in the 1760s. The early commercial monochromatic prints are known as sumizuri-e—literally, “pictures printed in ink.” Despite their limited palette, these works by designers such as Kaigetsudō Anchi and Okumura Masanobu, who are represented in this display, have a presence and immediacy rarely seen again in Japanese printmaking until the 20th century.
After the development of full-color printing in the mid-18th century, some publishers chose to save money by continuing to use black ink alone to produce illustrated books and single-sheet prints. Other publishers deployed black ink to make a statement about the skill of an artist or to imbue a print with a painterly quality: they produced complex images rendered mostly in shades of gray, as seen in works by Katsukawa Shunchō and Utagawa Hiroshige.
In the 20th century, print designers who recognized the potential of black ink on paper took up the challenge of making compelling images with only the fundamental materials. Artists including Munakata Shikō and Hiratsuka Un’ichi spent virtually their entire careers working almost exclusively in black ink, demonstrating the expressive power of mono-chromatic printing.
The striking works in this exhibition span nearly 250 years and are drawn entirely from the rich holdings of the Art Institute’s Japanese print collection.
Monochromatic Japanese Prints is curated by Janice Katz, Roger L. Weston Associate Curator of Japanese Art, the Art Institute of Chicago.