Japanese Woodblock Prints (1680–1938), TASCHEN, £150
It was the Spanish painter Pablo Picasso who once remarked: “To me there is no past or future in art. If a work of art cannot live always in the present it must not be considered at all.” Although Picasso was always greatly interested in distending form to its very limit and indeed produced his best work in the freedom he found by colliding hitherto distinct styles and registers, he would have surely recognised in the simple clarity of the woodblock and its plangent designs, work that could “live always in the present.”
In the apocalyptic traditions of European culture, history is viewed not as a circle as the Greeks saw it, passing from Golden Age to dark ages to Golden Age and back again, but as a journey towards a paradisiacal future. Paradise was often portrayed as a state of equality between man, beast and flower – in Jewish Day of Judgement traditions humanity on its last day sits down at a rich banquet, but our heads are replaced by animal heads – our final divine form is human, bird, fish and ox altogether. The art of the woodblock transplants future bliss into the present day – man transforms into animal and back again, samurai warriors take on the powers of the gods and great monsters of the sea lie just offshore.