How to Care for Japanese Woodblock Prints

The beauty of Japanese woodblock prints seems to transcend time and space. However, without conscientious care, time and the locations where the prints are displayed can be unkind to these exquisite depictions of Japanese culture.

To gain experienced insight about care, display and storage of Japanese woodblock prints, we turned to Roni Neuer, co-founder of Ronin Art Gallery, New York, NY.

Safe and Savvy Approach to Limiting Light Exposure

“Dainan Gate in Mukden,” Hiroshima Yoshida, circa 1937, est. $900-$1,400. Jasper52 image

As with any work of art on paper, prolonged exposure to sunlight can be damaging to Japanese woodblock prints, Neuer explained. In fact, exposure to any type of light over extended periods of time can do more harm than good. The light causes fading, especially with pre-20th-century prints (Edo period) that often were made with vegetable dyes.

Before giving serious consideration to removing prints and opting for mass storage, Neuer is quick to point out the purpose of art, and therefore the importance of conscientious care.

“To me, the function of art is to bring a little enjoyment to life. Because of the nature of art, and our role as its stewards, we must be mindful of how we care for it, how we hang it, and where we place it.”

With that in mind, Neuer recommends the following measures:

  1. Research potential framers and ask questions.
  2. Ensure framing of Japanese woodblock prints includes glass with a UV filter (conservation glass).
  3. Confirm the use of acid-free or archival materials in matting.
  4. If hinges or tape are used, ensure that they are acid-free and used sparingly.

“Emperor Cranes,” Ohara Koson, circa 1930s, est. $750-$1,000. Jasper52 image

Another essential recommendation Neuer shares with clients is to add the date the print was framed, and every five years replace the frame glass.

“The technology and science of archiving changes, with new processes and better materials,” Neuer explained. “You may have had it framed properly 20 years ago, but in that time it’s lost a lot of protective properties.”

An example of the significant impact of extensive exposure to sunlight is shown below. Two examples of the same Hiroshige woodblock print are shown side by side, with the example on the right obviously faded, due to extensive exposure to sunlight.

Side-by-side views of Hiroshige’s “Plum Garden at Kameido,” showing a perfect example of the print and another that has faded due to exposure to sunlight. Courtesy of Ronin Art Gallery

“Fading and the browning process happens gradually,” said Neuer, who often uses the example of a print with green mountains, which due to extensive exposure to light, was suddenly a print with mountains that had turned blue. “You don’t see it happening, until it’s happened.”

Savvy Storage Practices

Just as in displaying and framing prints, acid-free is a term that must be kept in mind when storing Japanese woodblock prints. Archival (acid-free) papers and folders, and archival boxes help create a protective haven for prints. Cotton rag Japanese-style paper is also used. These types of materials are available through reputable frame shops, art supply stores, and online.

Conscientious care is an integral part of an investment in, and long-term enjoyment of, Japanese woodblock prints. When preservation isn’t kept in mind from the very beginning of one’s ownership of a print, a treasured artwork can be irreversibly ruined – and that’s never an option.

Roni Neuer is one of America’s foremost experts on the subject of 17th- through 21st-century Japanese prints. She co-founded the Ronin Gallery in 1975, with Herbert Libertson. She is the author of more than 40 exhibition catalogs and Ukiyo-e: 250 Years of Japanese Art, a 500-page history of Japanese prints.

Click here to view this week’s auction of Japanese woodblock prints.