Japanese Woodblock Print Database | Ukiyo-e Search
January 7, 2013 12:08 PM   Subscribe

Starting in the early 1700s and exploding in popularity throughout the 1800s, Japanese woodblock prints depicted the fantastic world of Kabuki actors, courtesans, warriors, and nature. Ever since then keeping track of all of the incredible artwork has been a pain, traipsing between dealer and museum websites, awkwardly shuffling through academic library 'websites', wandering aimlessly through GIS, not to mention all the trouble a patron had to go through to see these before the Internets. Well, The Japanese Woodblock Print Database aggregates prints from a number of museums, dealers, and auction houses into a single resource, searchable by keyword and by image, and thereby provides a shining example of web-accessible art database interface. Enjoy! [via mefi projects]

From the Projects post, here are some excellent keyword searches:
Monkey | Fish | Toad | Octopus | Blue | Cloud | Green | Grass | Bird - finch - titmouse - crow - eagle | Flower - orchid - chrysanthemum - plum - cherry | Gods - Fudo | Lion Dance | Demon | Ghost | Umbrella | Wave | Whirlpool | Waterfall | Mountain | Fuji | Tanuki | Jizo | Baku | Oni | Yokai

Project mastermind jeresig offers some fascinating insight on how this database was designed and built over in the Projects post.

Thanks to jeresig, ReginaHart, and sciencegeek, and the Obakemono Project for all the cool search keywords!
posted by carsonb (19 comments total) 77 users marked this as a favorite
Such a brilliant and inspiring project.
posted by Foci for Analysis at 12:27 PM on January 7, 2013

This is super cool! I wish there were something like this for all sorts of art genres. Damn though, I am going spend a ton of time looking at samurai.
posted by Mister Cheese at 12:31 PM on January 7, 2013

Brilliant! Fantastic! Had to happen on a Monday, of course . . .
posted by TomSophieIvy at 12:45 PM on January 7, 2013

What are the terms of use for the images? Are they public domain, or subject to copyright, etc.?
posted by dpapathanasiou at 1:03 PM on January 7, 2013

This is great.
posted by Capybara at 1:09 PM on January 7, 2013

What are the terms of use for the images? Are they public domain, or subject to copyright, etc.?

jeresig's explanation linked above covers this, citing Bridgeman Art Library v. Corel Corp: exact photographic copies of public domain images could not be protected by copyright in the United States because the copies lack originality.

I am not sure how that addresses work by more contemporary Japanese Woodblock artists whose pieces turns up here.
posted by carsonb at 1:16 PM on January 7, 2013

This is fantastic and so welcome. Thank you. I discovered woodblock prints a few years ago and have since collected some of MetaFilter's own Woodblock100's prints while gleaning a little knowledge from his encyclopedic website but found elsewhere no array of historical images. Even though I am a casual devotee, I really like this genre and am delighted to have access to this. MetaFilter rocks.
posted by Anitanola at 1:17 PM on January 7, 2013 [1 favorite]

Thank you everyone! And thank you carsonb for putting up this great post!

@dpapathanasiou: I am not a lawyer but virtually everything depicted here is well protected under fair use (it's almost all over 100+ years old and a work of art). Museums will SAY that you have to request special permission to get the images, but that's usually just posturing (especially in a case like here where this is being provided for free as an educational resource). I recommend looking at Bridgeman v. Corel as an example case on this.

Now, as to the terms of use for the images on the ukiyo-e.org site itself: It's completely open to anyone to use. I'd love to have a citation back to the site (especially if you're hotlinking the image) but I won't require it. I feel that it's more important to have these images out there and people being exposed to this beautiful art form than the nitpicky-ness of trying to force these images under some other license. (I should make this clear on the site.)

@carsonb is right in that the legality of the contemporary work is definitely more challenging. Since I'm using the images in a purely educational context (not trying to profit off of them) it would be very hard for an institution to come down on me. That being said, in many of the contemporary cases I'm linking directly back to dealers or auction houses that are attempting to sell the prints to begin with so it's really in the artist/dealer/auction house's favor to keep these up and publicized. We'll see, I suspect I'll have to talk with a lawyer at some point :)

@Anltanola: It really surprised me to see David Bull on MeFi - he's just awesome, really, the best. I've read through all of his stuff and have watched more hours of him carving woodblocks than I care to admit.
posted by jeresig at 1:22 PM on January 7, 2013 [2 favorites]


We have a contemporary woodblock print that my brother-in-law gave us and it sits in pride of place in our lounge.
posted by arcticseal at 1:52 PM on January 7, 2013

Yay, I picked up this in second hand book market in Tokyo two years ago and despaired of ever finding out more about it! http://ukiyo-e.org/image/harvard/HUAM-CARP00503
posted by Pericles at 2:14 PM on January 7, 2013

So nice, thanks.

Here's a good collection of similar material in my hometown.
posted by Buckley at 3:12 PM on January 7, 2013

Heh, searching for shunga (NSFW) doesn't disappoint.
posted by OverlappingElvis at 3:22 PM on January 7, 2013 [1 favorite]

@Pericles: That's a great print! Harunobu is easily one of my favorite Ukiyo-e artists. (He was one of the first artists to popularize multi-block color printing and his prints frequently feature numerous references to classical imagery and poetry -- often exceedingly highbrow for what it is.)

@Buckley: Ooh, that's a collection that I haven't noticed before - and it's excellent, some real top-notch prints! I've added it to my "hit list" and hope to add it in the near future. I hope they put some of the prints on exhibition and you get to see them - it's always a real treat to be able to see them in person.

@OverlappingElvis: Ha, yeah ;) It's interesting, there's been a major stigma against shunga, as an art form, for a long time. It's only been in the last few decades that institutions and researchers have started to examine the art form in ernest - and made concerned efforts to preserve prints. As a result many major institutions don't have a very large shunga collection (or if they do, they aren't openly exhibiting them). I have a few more sources that I plan on adding that have more of these prints but for the most part they're either coming from dealers or from a private password-protected, Japanese-only, database.
posted by jeresig at 3:27 PM on January 7, 2013

@jeresig let me know if I can be of help should you need to make contact with the Weatherspoon.

They did have a show several years ago, which was pretty great.
posted by Buckley at 4:17 PM on January 7, 2013

John, very interesting to see this - it's quite a stupendous undertaking. It's the sort of thing I was toying with trying to build some years back, but I'm very glad I never tried; without the tools you have developed for gathering this collection, it would have been pretty much impossible.

This is clearly going to become the standard reference for the field, I'm sure.
posted by woodblock100 at 8:30 PM on January 7, 2013 [1 favorite]

Fantastic work building this collection. I have wanted something exactly like this for a few years, but didn't have the technical ability to do it myself or the time to save images manually.

I am so happy this exists now. Time to get searching for my next desktop and screensaver...
posted by gbc at 8:49 PM on January 7, 2013

This absolutely rocks.
Any antique picker / art scout - will be using this constantly.
posted by Bighappyfunhouse at 12:37 AM on January 8, 2013

Ok, one more search term:
posted by sciencegeek at 8:07 AM on January 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

I immediately think of this famous peice when I hear Ukijo-e.

The great wave aka that Tsunami picture
posted by Merlin The Happy Pig at 5:04 PM on January 8, 2013

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