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Watch Artifacts online: Episode 5 Prints of the Floating World

Today's Japan. Everywhere you look, amazing images fight for your attention. This is the graphic art for which Japan is justly famous. It's an art which has it's roots in one of the most dynamic periods of Japan's past, the age of the woodblock print, or 'Ukiyo-e', an art form whose impact was as revolutionary in Japan as Gutenberg's printed books were in the west. While the paintings of the impressionists Monet, Van Gogh, and Degas are glittering treasures of western culture, their inspiration wasn't western at all. The real source of their new vision was not in France, not even in Europe, but in a country on the other side of the world - Japan! In the bustling capital city of Edo, later to be known as Tokyo, most woodblock prints were things to be admired and then thrown away like comics books or newspapers today. And so discarded prints were sometimes used to pack ceramics for export to America and Europe. This is how Japanese woodblock prints first found their way into the oriental curiosity shops of London and Paris. Initially, they went almost unnoticed among the Asian artifacts flooding into Europe. But when these brightly colored prints were discovered by the art world, exhibitions were quickly organized, and they would rock the foundations of Western Art.

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