How beloved Australian artists Cressida Campbell and Margaret Preston were shaped by ukiyo-e

How beloved Australian artists Cressida Campbell and Margaret Preston were shaped by ukiyo-e
  • PublishedJune 9, 2024

The Great Wave off Kanagawa can be found hanging in many Australian share houses, adorning the walls of Japanophiles and everyday art fans alike.

But Hokusai’s iconic ukiyo-e (Japanese woodcut) print — and others like it — also left an indelible mark on Australian art.

Margaret Preston (1865–1963) and Cressida Campbell (1960–), whose careers span two centuries, incorporated the practice into their own renowned and beloved work.

A new exhibition, Cutting Through Time — Cressida Campbell, Margaret Preston, and the Japanese Print, at Geelong Gallery, Victoria, traces this influence.

What is ukiyo-e?

Ukiyo-e translates to “pictures (e) of the floating world (ukiyo)” and is an art form that rose to prominence in 17th and 18th century Japan, a period of peace and prosperity.

Asian art historian Dr Mae Anna Pang writes in the exhibition catalogue: “The term ‘floating world’ referred in particular to life in the entertainment districts that housed the pleasure quarters and the popular kabuki theatre, but the word also carried connotations of being modern, affluent, chic and fashionable.”

The people of the floating world were entertainers, geishas and samurai, and many of the scenes depicted in ukiyo-e were of romance, scandals and violence. While the most popular prints were erotica, landscapes were also common.

A Japanese woodblock print of an actor in kimono
The Geelong exhibition features a range of artworks from the late 17th century to the mid 19th century.(Supplied: Queensland Art Gallery | Galleryof Modern Art)

“Often the ukiyo-e prints capture the notion of the transience of time and the fleeting moment,” Lisa Sullivan, Senior Curator at Geelong Gallery, told ABC RN’s The Art Show.

The art form evolved over many centuries and certain artists, including Hokusai, Hiroshige, Kunisada and Utamaro, became household names.

“[But] there were multiple individuals involved with the creation of the prints; an artist might make a design, and then a carver would carve the design into a woodblock, and then [there would be] a printer and even a publisher as well,” Sullivan explains.

A Japanese woodblock print with trees, hills, ocean and people walking
“Stylistically, ukiyo-e prints were dynamic, bright in colour, and bold in design … expressive, imaginative, and inventive in the way in which they told a story,” Dr Pang writes.(Supplied: Geelong Gallery)

Sullivan says a key aspect of ukiyo-e is “the bold outline or key block”, which gives each print a clear linear form. Then colours are then printed onto the original outline, via additional wood blocks.

It is a precise and exacting art: printing the layers requires applying ink to each block and then carefully laying down the paper every time, perfectly aligned.

Multiple prints were then often made.

“I look at it very much as a process of democratisation of art. As has often been [the case] in various cultures and countries, the printed form has been the way that images have gotten so widely distributed,” says Sullivan.

“There were these wonderful poster-like images that were distributed and hung in people’s homes. So they had a wide circulation.”

Preston impressed by prints

Yet until the mid-19th century, the circulation of ukiyo-e was limited to Japan.

After Japan started opening up, ukiyo-e began to shape the work of European and American artists including Vincent Van Gogh, James McNeill Whistler and Henri Matisse, as well as Australian artists such as Tom Roberts and Louis Abrahams.

“They were interested in the use of vivid colour applied with flowing brushstrokes, the use of black outline, cut-off composition and the use of asymmetry and flat space,” Dr Pang writes.

It was while on visits to Europe in the early 1900s, filtered through the work of these Western artists, that the pioneering modernist Australian painter and printmaker Margaret Preston was first exposed to the charms of ukiyo-e.

A black and white photograph of the artist Margaret Preston in the 1930s doing a woodblock print
Margaret Preston woodblock printing in Berowra in 1937.(Supplied: Art Gallery of New South Wales/FJ Halmarick)

Preston then studied ukiyo-e at the Musée Guimet, Paris’ National Museum of Asian Arts, while on another stint in Europe from 1912–1919.

On returning to Sydney in 1920, Preston started applying ukiyo-e techniques to scenes of home, including Circular Quay and Mosman Bay.

A print by Margaret Preston of Sydney's Mosman Bay in the 1920s
Margaret Preston, Mosman Bay 1920,  woodcut, printed in black ink, from one block, hand-coloured; undesignated impression, National Gallery of Australia(Supplied: Copyright Agency)

In 1934, Preston studied in Tokyo with a descendent of Hiroshige, which led to Begonia (1935) and Tea-tree and Hakea petiolaris (1936).

She ended up adapting the woodcut method to suit her, using a key block for the black outline of her pictures, and hand painting them with watercolour.

A print by Margaret Preston of begonias, stark black outlined flowers, dabs of light pink
Margaret Preston, Begonia, 1935, woodcut, printed in black ink on thin ivory laid Japanese paper; unknown edition, handcoloured.(Supplied: Art Gallery of New South Wales)

As well as drawing from Japanese art, Preston has been accused of appropriating Aboriginal art with some of her works, including Aboriginal still life (1940).

“She was clearly an artist and an individual who was very interested in travelling and experiencing various cultures… But I think without a doubt, [looking through] our contemporary lens at what she did, it doesn’t always sit comfortably with us,” says Sullivan.

But the curator says it’s worth remembering that, in the case of ukiyo-e and Western art, it was a two-way street.

“When Japan opened up, Hokusai was looking at Dutch landscapes, at Western traditions of composition and equally bringing some of those into his compositions.”

Campbell: Drawn to the mystery of ukiyo-e

Cressida Campbell was just 16 when she first saw Preston’s work in a Sydney exhibition.

She had seen some ukiyo-e techniques in Van Gogh and Manet postcards and prints, but Preston’s work, which she hadn’t seen much of before, was “a revelation”.

“The woodcuts particularly hit a nerve, because not only did I think some of them were wonderful, but I also was interested to see that the subjects were Australian plants that I’d always been interested in,” Campbell recalls.

A 60-something woman with brown hair sits on outside steps, in a garden, her hands clasped in her lap
In sales alone, Campbell is one of Australia’s most successful and sought-after artists.(Supplied: NGA)

Now, the renowned contemporary Australian painter and printmaker has her work hanging alongside Preston and ukiyo-e masters in the Geelong exhibition.

“[Ukiyo-e] always have a very bold composition and that’s always appealed to me,” Campbell says. “But [I was also drawn to] the fine delicate lines of the leaves, patterns of a bamboo fence or delicate flowers.”

In 1985, when there were still few Western tourists in the country, a flame-haired 25-year-old Campbell travelled to Japan to study at the Yoshida Hanga Academy (causing a sensation among the locals).

The influence of the ukiyo-e masters quickly started emerging in Campbells’ work, including the startling 1986 print Through The Windscreen.

A print/painting by Cressida Campbell of the windscreen of a car looking out on a bay with petrol tanks
Cressida Campbell, Through the windscreen 1986, woodcut, printed in watercolour Collection of Cressida Campbell(Supplied: Cressida Campbell/Warren Macris)

That work is the result of a visit to Greenwich, the Sydney suburb where Campbell grew up. Sitting in a car, she drew a picture of the view through the windscreen — which included petrol tanks — directly onto a woodblock.

Reflecting on that work, Campbell says: “Hiroshige, in particular, did very clever compositions of landscapes … [and] when you think of Kimono patterns, they do often have that combination of man-made objects with nature … and I’ve always loved the combination.”

A print/painting by Cressida Campbell of flowers in vases, a Japanese woodblock print in the background
Ukiyo-e prints hang on walls in the backgrounds of some of Campbell’s works, including Shelf still life (2012).(Supplied: Cressida Campbell)

Campbell points out “the floating world is a mysterious world”, and believes many of her works also have a sense of mystery to them, especially those that depict beautiful rooms and domestic scenes, minus the people who live there.

Sullivan says their exhibition is partly about the way art history “ebbs and flows”.

“And how contemporary artists are often looking back at art history and learning from previous artists and picking up on things … transforming or applying it and thinking about the contemporary world that they live in.”


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