Monday, 14 November 2011

What to look for in a Japanese Print - Part II

If one were to ask what makes a Japanese woodblock print special or valuable or rare, it would be hard to come up with a single, definitive answer. There are some common factors, of which condition is predominant, but there are many other factors of equal or greater importance. It would be pleasing to say that beauty or skill were paramount but sadly this is not always the case.

As with so many things, a final judgement on the 'worth' of a print is a mixture of many different factors. Balancing these contributions is quite subjective and will also vary from auction house to auction house and from collector to collector. Fashions change, rarity shifts with time and scholarship, consensus is affected by events - like a major retrospective at a national museum - which force scholars and collectors to reassess an artist or a movement. For example, throughout the nineteenth and most of the twentieth century, ukiyo-e collectors and commentators dismissed the work of the late Edo period as 'decadent', giving the greatest emphasis and scholarship to the 'classical period', ie prints from the the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries such as the drifting, sparse women of Utamaro and Haronobu. The works of Kuniyoshi were tolerated but widely dismissed for being vulgar. The work of Kunichika and Yoshitoshi was barely recognised right up until the late twentieth century. Happily, as contemporary scholars work to establish the reputations of these very great artists we can hope for a more balanced overview of Japanese art. Old habits linger however and the rarity, the age and the lingering sense of 'genius' mean that even a patchy Utamaro in very poor condition will command higher prices than a fine Kuniyoshi, despite evidence to the contrary.

So, what to look for. Condition remains paramount - within reason. It is pretty well impossible to find eighteenth century prints in pristine condition. The fugitive vegetable colours mean that even the best prints will have faded disastrously from their original state. The age of these prints means that greater handling and exposure will have had a major and detrimental effect. Even with highly collectible artists, if a print is torn, trimmed, scuffed, faded and creased its value will plummet to almost nothing. For nineteenth century artists it is preferable that the print be untrimmed or at least not trimmed into the image. This is more rare than most people imagine - the best preserved ukiyo prints were stored in albums and ironically these were trimmed to shape when they were bound. The crispness of the print is also important: the earlier in the edition, the sharper the lines on the wooden block will be and hence the sharper the lines andthe edges on the print. This is what is meant when dealers refer to 'early editions' and an early edition will also potentially have different colours and publishing information. In a series such as Yoshitoshi’s 32 Aspects of Women, the second edition without the three-colour cartouche (shown to the left) is worth less than half the value of the first edition with the three-colour cartouche (shown on the right). Sadly there are plenty of dealers on the internet who fail to specify late editions and charge early edition prices, snaring the unwary buyer.

Worse still are reprints - this is a particular problem with Hiroshige. Hiroshige was so popular during his life and following his death that the original blocks became worn beyond repair. For decades after his death, new blocks were carved by pasting an original print onto fresh timber and carving the image exactly through the paper making near identical copies. Whilst these were considered equally valid in Japan, in the West, with our different culture of authenticity, these prints have little or no value at all and yet are often sold as ‘original’ (for example on e-bay, where they are widely available, as shown to the left). It is wise to examine a small area of intense detail, mark for mark against a known example (such as the print to the right). Any deviation will indicate a late copy, as will the flatter and brighter colours and thicker paper.

It is important then, with all print artists, to get early editions, as little trimmed as possible and in the best condition possible - an example of a pristine print is the Kunichika shown to the bottom right. Some damage when working with fragile finite resources is inevitable. In general when collecting it is necessary to make a judgement of the value of a piece - its condition against its rarity and the beauty of the piece itself. An important, rare and beautiful print by Kuniyoshi will still be valuable even if it is slightly trimmed or has some damage. A minor print by Kunisada in poor condition - trimmed, and creased from a late edition will be worth comparatively little. In the end though it is down to the judgement and the preference of the individual. Collecting an entire series by a particular artist - Kuniyoshi’s ‘Treasury of the Loyal Retainers’ for example, will entail buying prints of widely varying quality over a long period of time and then up-trading periodically (selling on less good copies and substituting them with better editions) until a homogeneity is achieved.

At the end of the day, experience and personal preference is what distinguishes the purchases a collector makes. A little experience and some sensible caution are the basics, after that, the thrill of collecting is in the end the acquisition of a very personal knowledge about a very personal response to art. But do also beware of cheap deals and vague wording… the word ‘original’ is sometimes not enough.

Thursday, 20 October 2011

Techniques in Japanese Prints IV - Bokashi

Bokashi (shading)

Probably the most common advanced technique in woodblock prints is termed bokashi which means shading or transition. It is so universal in some artists' work that it seems barely noticeable but it nevertheless provides extraordinary variety and depth to a print as well as naturalistic tones within the grid of the black key lines and other colours.

The strip of dark blue sky at the top of most Hiroshige, which fades to sky blue and then white as it approaches the horizon is maybe the most identifiable use of bokashi. The technique is almost a signifier of Edo period landscape prints - so much so that it loses its primary purpose of naturalism and becomes a design motif or signifier of sky and recession.

Elsewhere in ukiyo-e, the method of shading is more subtle, less obvious or staggeringly complex as in the case of the illustrated Kunisada Secret Meetings by Moonlight. Normally, the woodblock itself is inked evenly (a skilled operation in itself) so that the raised and carved surfaces receive a uniform coat of ink. The block is first dampened, the ink applied and then carefully brushed to achieve even distribution. In bokashi the ink is applied in greater quantities where the strongest colour is desired and then subsequently less heavily where lighter shades are required. The brush marks and abrupt edges are then smoothed aside by gentle brushing in multiple directions. The whole process is made more difficult since the printer can barely see the progress of his work because of the dark colouration of the wood itself. When the desired shading has been achieved the paper is laid down and the print is made.

In some cases, several colours can be blended together at once to achieve what might be called a ‘rainbow’ effect as in the beautiful print of a musician by Kunichika illustrated here. Looking again at the Kunisada, the night-time grisaille effects produced by the overlapping gray shades, the delicate woodgrain and complete fading away of architectural detail in say the window bars is truly astonishing. It is very hard indeed to try to deconstruct the printing process, the order of the separate applications of ink and the number of separate tones achieved by overlapping the different inked blocks. This is one of the best examples of the technique that I have seen, the more so since the intention of the process and its role in the design and the meaning of the print are so important.

Bokashi was mainly a product of the nineteenth century boom in ukiyo-e, the process not being common in prints prior to that. Deluxe prints from the 1840’s onwards took advantage of this and the other specialist techniques to produce truly extraordinary prints that shimmered and sparkled with mica and metallic inks, complex shading and embossing on thick, luxury papers. For collectors, these luxury items are now highly sought after objects and with justification, because of the endless complexity of design the new techniques offered to the artist.

Sunday, 18 September 2011

Techniques in Japanese Woodblock Prints III - Mica

Printing With Mica (Kirazuri)

You may have come across Japanese prints which are described as having mica as a feature of a special or deluxe edition. There was a craze for mica prints in the late eighteenth century, most famously by the enigmatic and little known artist Toshusai Sharaku who was mysteriously active for one year only from 1794 - 1795. His caricature prints of actors of which only 140 are known have deeply pigmented and mica strewn backgrounds, so dense that the few prints that remain are invariably cracked and crazed with the effects of decades of rolling and creasing. Sharaku is one of the most expensive ukiyo-e artists; a single print by him was sold at auction in 1997 for $296,000. Utamaro (1753 - 1806) also used this difficult and time consuming technique.

Fewer deluxe prints were produced during the nineteenth century, presumably because of high demand and therefore pressure on production, but as the popularity of ukiyo-e declined from the 1870’s onward, the deluxe edition became popular again amongst aficionados and collectors. Mica prints remain some of the finest prints that were produced in Japan. Not only did they shimmer with reflective dust, they were printed onto thicker paper with complex designs and other expensive techniques such as embossing or burnishing.

Printing with mica (and sometimes metallic powders) was a difficult and highly skilled technique. The nature of the glue and the way it held the fine powders when mixed together was such that it tended to adhere to the block rather than transfer neatly to the paper. Consequently the block was firstly prepared with gum arabic, then dusted with mica using a fine brush. The paper was then printed, transferring a sandwich of glue and dust to the required area. Alternatively, the gum was printed directly onto the paper (sometimes through a stencil) and the mica powder was sieved onto the wet glue to be dusted off when the glue had dried.

Woodblock prints with a lot of mica still present are rare because of the tendency for the powder to wear off with time, as the gum becomes brittle and less ‘sticky’. Kunichika was particularly fond of mica in his prints, particularly on series such as the 100 roles of Baiko and the 100 roles of Ichikawa Danjuro. The very fine Danjuro print illustrated below has some of the best preserved kirazuri I have seen. This print and others by Kunichika are at Toshidama Gallery from the 23rd of September 2011.

Friday, 2 September 2011

Techniques in Japanese Woodblock Prints II

Gauffrage, or Embossing.

I wanted to write these short explicatory notes to help people appreciate the terms and the techniques they might come across when viewing Japanese woodblock prints perhaps for the first time. It can be quite off-putting to tackle the specialist terminology, which is why at Toshidama Gallery we usually use plain words to describe process. Gauffrage is a case in point. It is common for a print to be described as having fine gauffrage on the cuffs of a jacket or the collar of a kimono but what does this French word have to do with Japanese prints?

Gauffrage is a hybrid word; French in origin, from gaufrer which means to emboss. This in turn has its origins in gaufre or honeycomb or waffle. In English it turns up as goffer which is a seventeenth century word meaning to crimp or plait in costumery. The word is used in the context of printmaking to mean blind embossing, a raised area of the print that is not necessarily coloured. If using a word in English other than embossing it might be better to choose the Japanese, karazuri which simply means ‘empty’ or ‘done without ink’.

The technique is simple enough, a carved area of the block is created as normal and the damp paper is laid over it and rubbed very hard with a smooth object or ‘burren’. This produces a sharply defined, raised area on the paper that will appear more or less apparent depending on the direction and source of the light. The effect is to bring life and dimension to the print - as your eyes move in relation to the surface more or less detail is revealed to you.

The technique is most common in Japanese prints of the Meiji era (1868 - 1912) although it has been used in manuscripts and other items as far back as the twelfth century, but it was really the enormous popularity of ukiyo prints in the late nineteenth century which allowed publishers and artists the license to produce lavish effects such as these.

The photographs here show three uses of embossing on a single print of Zi Luo reading by Moonlight from the series One Hundred Phases of the Moon by Yoshitoshi of 1888. In the first picture the series cartouche is deeply and sharply embossed with intersecting hexagons against which float the calligraphy of the title.

A quite different technique has been used to emboss the sack of rice that Zi Luo is carrying. It is possible that the texture was derived from stiff hessian material rather than carved wood since the embossing technique could employ any resistant textured surface as a pattern.

In the final example, the rough texture of the paper is used in the lower half of the print to evoke the rising mist. It appears that the rest of the paper has been flattened to create the contrast and hence the higher, raised edge.

In addition to the differing effects of the embossing, Yoshitoshi has used the most delicate gradations of shading and effects of colour to add realism, depth and surface incident to the composition. The result is a fine evocative print which seems effortlessly to demonstrate the range of the woodblock artist. This print and others by Yoshitoshi will be available in our new season show: 4 x 4 Giants of the Ukiyo Scene from September 23rd.

Wednesday, 24 August 2011

Coming up at the Toshidama Gallery

As summer comes to an end and the beginning of the new season approaches, we'll be continuing our series on techniques in japanese prints with a look at gauffrage (embossing), looking into the relationship between Kuniyoshi and Kunisada's warrior prints as well as examining in depth some of the exciting new prints in the next show 4 x 4: Giants of the Ukiyo-e Scene, opening on the 23rd September.

In the meantime, it's worth taking a look at our Wordpress blog, which examines the cultural context of Japanese Prints. And at the Gallery, there's a retrospective show from the archives, with some substantial discounts (and an additional 15% for newsletter subscribers).

Enjoy the last days of summer!

Thursday, 21 July 2011

Techniques in Japanese Woodblock Prints Part 1 - Shomen-zuri

Burnishing, or Shomen-zuri

Woodblock printing in Japan, ukiyo-e, was quick to develop from the single-colour outline prints of the early eighteenth century and their hand-coloured counterparts into the multi-colour block prints of the nineteenth century. Sometimes described as embroidered pictures, these mid- and late-century prints present us with rich polychrome surfaces, pictures which use multiple coloured blocks that are double-printed, over-printed, shaded, burnished, embossed and sprinkled with shiny, reflective mica. I want to look in more detail at these techniques in the coming weeks through these short blog posts starting with a frequently used technique of burnishing or shomen-zuri.

The first picture (shown above) is a magnificent triptych portrait of the actor Ichikawa Danjuro IX by the artist Toyohara Kunichika and it dates from 1894. It’s quite a big image at 72cm x 38cm. The enlargement of the print shows the intricate carving of the lines of the hair and the masterful massing of the imposing figure set against the nearly empty background. However carefully shot though, something from this fine portrait is missing. Looking at the next image which was shot on the slant a sophisticated pattern of filigree flowers and leaves is revealed, this beautiful black on black design only revealing itself when held at an angle to the light. The pattern here has been burnished onto the background printing of the black tunic; this technique is what is called shomen-zuri.

To gain the intense black of the tunic, it is likely that a first ground of black would have been printed and then a second layer printed on top, possibly containing rice glue or gum. A block with the pattern carved in relief would have been placed under the printed area of tunic and the surface of the paper rubbed with a smooth, hard object - the preferred item being a polished boar’s tusk, or spoon. The constituents of the ink would encourage the shiny pattern to appear on the surface of the print. This technique was most commonly used on black areas and it lends the prints a great deal of depth. It has to remembered that in nineteenth century Japan there was not the same tradition of framing art and hanging it on a wall. Prints were designed to be held in albums or passed around; this way the different techniques would catch the light as they were being handled.

Techniques such as this were time consuming and therefore expensive to produce, and consequently are most commonly found on deluxe prints rather than playbills or large series. This beautiful portrait and others of Danjuro are available at the current exhibition at the Toshidama Gallery, Personalities of Edo: the Cult of Celebrity in Japanese Woodblock Prints until August.

Tuesday, 28 June 2011

Tall Tales and Japanese Woodblock Prints

Benkei and Yoshitsune and the Fight at Gojo Bridge
Some stories persist; immune to cultural change, embroidered and adapted to different times, rising and falling in popularity and sometimes losing touch completely with their origins and their roots. None of this matters of course, what matters is what people make of a story, how cultures adapt mythology to suit their own needs or express their particular frustrations. In the west I’d think of King Arthur, the sixth century English tribal chief who has fulfilled everything from Anglo-Saxon desires for nationhood, the greed of the Glastonbury monks who faked his grave to attract pilgrims; or the Victorians who made him their great romantic saviour and the new-age people of today who see in him a mystical link to a lost and greener world.

So it is in all cultures but perhaps more so than any in the Edo culture of nineteenth century Japan. In Japanese woodblock prints, many legends and myths surface again and again in one disguise or another. The rich mythological history of Japan is the persistent thread that runs through the subject matter of the entire genre. The period was particularly volatile; economically, politically and socially. Japan had emerged at the beginning of the century as a robust bourgeois society, dominated by townsmen but mired in the shogunate - the samurai culture of the middle ages. The century-long struggle to adapt and face the new challenges of international trade was painful. Print artists like Utagawa Kuniyoshi or Utagawa Kunisada struggled to express the growing unrest of their audience in the face of punitive censorship laws aimed at quelling popular dissent. One way round the prohibitions was to make series of prints glorifying the deeds of the past, celebrating great warriors or heroes and illustrating the poems and myths of common popular culture. These history essays and genre pieces stood in for the real subjects of the prints which were often too controversial to be directly addressed.

Mitate was a common form of expression; it means "to stand in for" or "to satirise". To the urban Japanese mitate-e or satire prints were akin to the modern cryptic crossword puzzle whereby identities of actors or plays, historical figures or bandits were referred to obliquely by gesture, by objects such as flowers or else places and landmarks. In spite of their obscurity, the prints were quite readable by the well educated urban Japanese.

One such hero, pictured in hundreds of prints of the mid-nineteenth century is Oniwakamura known as Benkei. Born in 1155 and reputedly of enormous strength and vitality, Benkei was raised by monks who were both religious and military. As a young man he positioned himself at one end of Gojo Bridge and disarmed travellers of their swords. On reaching his 999th sword he fought with a young nobleman Minamoto no Yoshitsune who won the battle of the bridge and thereafter Benkei served as his principal retainer. They fought in the Gempei wars between the Taira clan and their own Minamoto clan. The conflict saw the destruction of the Taira clan and the establishment of a nationwide shogunate and the suppression of the power of the Emperor for 650 years until the Meiji Restoration in the 1860’s. Given the waning grip on power that the shogunate experienced in the nineteenth century, depictions of the rebel heroes Benkei and Yoshitsune no Minamoto were bound to be contentious; all the more given that after their military victories, they were hounded to his death by Yoshitsune's own brother who assumed supreme power.

Benkei and Yoshitsune represent hugely powerful symbols to the Japanese... heroes, warriors, rebels and men of principle. By representing them, artists ran the risk of glamourising the names of the men who were betrayed dishonourably by the infant shogunate. The fight at Gojo Bridge is maybe the most widely reproduced scene from the life of Yoshitsune. It is important to remember that this is a symbolic fight and not one between opposing powers. The fight, almost certainly mythical, sets out the future relationship between the two characters; it establishes their physical presence and their personalities. All the other stories that follow stem from this crucial coming together of the two heroes. I am reminded very powerfully of the English hero Robin Hood and his fight with Little John on the bridge in Sherwood Forest. These two myths are certainly the same archetype... the smaller man of noble birth defeats the giant on the bridge who has a heart of gold and swears fealty to the victor. Both Robin Hood and Minamoto are heroes pitched against unreasonable odds and the relationship between them and the stronger men is nearly identical. Like the Japanese, the English have allowed Robin Hood to enter their culture as a powerful symbol and like Minamoto his story continues to be retold and developed.

Toshidama Gallery is showing Heroes and Personalities in Japanese Prints from the 8th July 2011. Many of the Benkei prints on this page will be for sale as well as other depictions of great figures from history. The show runs until early September.

Wednesday, 8 June 2011

Bathers and Echoes in Japanese Prints and Beyond

As regular readers will know, reference, allusion and quotation are an embedded part of Japanese visual culture. Indeed, the Chazen Museum of Art, Wisconsin recently put on a blockbuster show on this very theme, Competition and Collaboration: Japanese Prints of the Tokugawa School. Sometimes the quotations are so clear and the similarity so great that it seems unacceptable to western eyes that this could be possible without law suits for plagiarism or intense jealousy and disagreement between artists.

In our current exhibition at the Toshidama Gallery, we are showing some beautiful prints by Toyohara Kunichika, which are a complex mitate-e, or parody on the theme of the famous Japanese novel The Tales of the Genji. One of the best pieces of this series, #9, Aoi is reproduced to the left. Kunichika produced this piece in 1884 and yet one doesn’t need a Masters in Art History to be immediately aware of the similarity to the Utagawa Kunisada panel from a triptych of the 1840’s (shown right). The Kunisada is a fairly straightforward depiction; the Kunichika - alluding to his teacher’s previous work - connects the image to a chapter likening the development of Prince Genji’s twelve year old bride to the blooming of seaweed. Kunichika is able to use both literary and visual allusion to add layers of meaning to his ‘parodic’ version of the story. A highly literate and knowing audience of townspeople would have known this and appreciated the play on words.

These nods and winks don’t stop with artists of the same school or even the same continent. Readers will be aware of how important ukiyo-e were to the development of impressionist and post-impressionist painters and how that in turn influenced early modernists - big names such as van Gogh, Cezanne, Picasso and Matisse. It’s interesting to look at the examples on this page and to see perhaps how little Cezanne and Matisse used western painting tradition and how much of a debt they owed to these Japanese examples. Interestingly, van Gogh owned a copy of the Kunisada triptych and it is not fanciful to suppose that Cezanne would therefore have been aware of this and others from the series in Gogh’s collection.

Of course Kunisada didn’t invent the gracious form of the ama divers either as the 18th century Utamaro pictured below demonstrates. Interesting to note also is the pictorial space in Japanese prints, which is inherently flat. The sea in both the Utamaro and the Kunisada is a pictorial rather than a realistic representation. There is no recession or spatial depth opened up in the picture - in western art the sea is a key device to create deep recession in pictorial space - in the Kunisada the sea begins in the left panel as a background to the diver but travels into the centre panel as a purely flat, graphic device. In the ukiyo-e pieces the figure is then released to observe only pictorial rules rather than representational ones. Focus on representation has underpinned western art since the sixteenth century; to artists such as Cezanne and van Gogh or Picasso and Matisse, the revelation of an internal aesthetic in ukiyo prints must have offered the chance of liberation from centuries of tradition.

In the Matisse, as in the Kunisada, the sea is rendered without perspective and in decorative bands of colour. The figures too primarily serve expressive purpose, making no attempt to render anatomy. Crucially, the ukiyo-e, the Matisse and the Cezanne are picturing a lost Eden of casual nakedness, relaxation and nature - something that Japan was then famous for, or as Matisse would famously put it in his 1904 painting: Luxe, calme et volupté.

Friday, 13 May 2011

Looking at Prints - Two Women and a Dog by Utagawa Toyohiro

What can we tell of this brush drawing by Toyohiro? The drawing tells us a great deal about the process of Japanese woodblock printing and raises questions which everyone has about authenticity and process.

This drawing is from the early 1800’s by the highly sought after woodblock artist Utagawa Toyohiro. It shows two women in front of Mount Fuji; a dog in its exuberance has knocked the right hand lady off her feet and her hair pins and pipe have gone flying. It is possible that there is some coded sexual meaning in the scene but it is difficult to say for sure since there appears to be no record of the print for which this drawing should have been a preparation. It is an astonishing tour-de-force, drawn freehand and with brushes, the lines exuding confidence and delicacy. The piece is in the archaic manner, sitting between the early style of the Utagawa School and the eighteenth century mannerism of Utamaro.

But how can we be sure that this is by the hand of the great artist himself? We can’t is the short answer. This uncertainty underpins the issue of authenticity across the whole genre of Japanese art, which is in a wholly different tradition to western art of the last two hundred years. We in the west place a heavy emphasis on romantic notions of originality, of genius, of individualism and of authenticity. This is less the case in the tradition of Japanese art where there was no corresponding Romantic Revolution propelling individuals to the status of men touched by God.

Of originality, we can clearly see in so many woodblock prints the wholesale copying of scenes, landscapes, styles etc from one artist to another, something abhored here in the west. Even artists' names become endlessly conferred from studio to studio as in kabuki theatre; individuals would take either the entire name of their teacher or syllables from two teachers to construct a new title... for example Kunisada I, Kunisada II, Kunisada III or Kunitoshi and so on. Established artists ran informal studios with apprentice artists coming and going and these apprentices were likely to become closely involved in the production of prints, as were the printing studios whose job it was to interpret the original drawing for the process of printing.

Let’s take a look at the whole process. The artists, in this case Toyohiro would produce a master drawing in black ink using brushes. A skilled assistant called a hikko would then trace the original drawing several times and these would then go back to the artist for approval. This tracing (called a hanshita) would then be subject to corrections. What is fascinating about this Toyohiro is the correction in the face of the right hand figure. This suggests that the drawing is either an original which Toyohiro has corrected himself or else a hanshita that he has corrected after its creation but prior to printing. Either way one can be fairly certain that this drawing is by the hand of Utagawa Toyohiro at least in part.

It’s not possible to say why this piece has survived since the next part of the process is for the hanshita to be glued face down to a wooden block and the areas of white paper and the wood beneath to be carved away leaving the black lines in relief. The washi paper of this piece is nearly transparent to facilitate this process. The carved block would then have been inked and several black line sheets (kyogo-zuri) were printed and then passed back to the artist for approval. Each of these proofs were then in turn pasted onto blocks and each separate colour block carved from these. Finally the edition of prints was manufactured, each print using several blocks, some printed several times to increase depth of colour or else brushed in gradations of colour to produce different, graded effects.

I would conclude that this drawing is probably a hanshita which has been corrected in person by Utagawa Toyohiro but then abandoned. For the western obsession with authenticity this is quite important since at least the artist’s hand has had direct contact with the work which is oddly more than can be said for the subsequent prints. For some reason, these pieces do not attract the attention that they deserve despite being (in western terms) more original. In the end though this is a superb and exquisite drawing more than two hundred years old, unique, original and breathtakingly beautiful.

The drawing Two Women and a Dog by Utagawa Toyohiro will be featured in the forthcoming exhibition at the Toshidama Gallery, A Century of Women, from the 27th May 2011. The drawing is priced at £360.

A superb explanatory film of the woodblock process is available here, courtesy of

Friday, 29 April 2011

Of Men and Umbrellas - Kasa-obake in Hirosada’s Woodblock Print

What a fantastic image we have here. Who is it, what is it, what does it mean? At first glance I suppose that this looks like a diffident man poking his head through the battered sides of a Japanese parasol.

This is a representation of a kabuki actor in the role of Kasa Ippon ashi or Kasa-obake - the "one legged umbrella demon". The demon is an artefact spirit or Tsukumogami - that is, an object that is over one hundred years old and according to belief has become imbued with a life force being both alive and aware. These spirit objects are similar in many ways to our belief in poltergeists. Like poltergeists they are playful and mischievous but rarely malign, although they become more angry when they witness needless waste which should make them popular with the current trend for recycling!

When not on the kabuki stage these sprites are pictured with one leg and an incredibly long tongue. Although they are traditional folklore creatures, they have enjoyed a resurgent popularity in the twentieth century. This is partly to do with the video gaming industry which tirelessly seeks out bizarre figures and outlandish plotlines. As you will see from some of the illustrations Kasa-obake now turns up as avatars, plastic toys, cartoon characters, and movie stars. The Hirosada woodblock print picture above is the first instance that we can find anywhere of a representation of the demon although I’d be fascinated to know if there exists an earlier one.

For those interested in Yokai, (Japanese demons) I recommend the movie trilogy Yokai daisenso ("Big Ghost War: Spook Warfare") Japan 1968, dir. Yoshiyuki Kuroda; Yokai Hyaku Monogatari ("One Hundred Monsters") Japan 1968, dir. Kimiyoshi Yasuda; and Tôkaidô obake dôchû ("Along With Ghosts") Japan 1969, dir. Yoshiyuki Kuroda; or Takashi Miike’s recent Yôkai daisensô ("Great Yokai War") 2005. Kasa-obake makes a hugely entertaining appearance in these films, a clip of which can be seen here on youtube.

Kasa-obake make an appearance in Super-Mario Land 2 and in Muramasa - the Demon Blade; they also have a starring role in the great Manga series Gegege no Kitaro by Shigeru Mizuki.

This unique print remains a superb and enigmatic image; the first depiction we can find of the umbrella demon. Beautifully printed and sensitively rendered it emanates a quiet mystery. It is a beautiful object and is available at the Toshidama Gallery for only £225.

Wednesday, 20 April 2011

Giant Spiders - Obscure Meanings in Japanese Prints Part I

Arachnophobes - which I’m afraid includes me! - should look away now. Ukiyo-e is littered with the corpses and the dripping fangs of over-sized and fantastical spiders. Something one notices immediately is how similar they all look and also how dissimilar to any ordinary spider one might have come across. Not only in their size; you will also notice that most only have two eyes and six legs instead of the correct number of eight. Why is this and what is the ukiyo-e fascination with them? There is some discussion over the creature known as Tsuchigumo, (the gigantic spider). The name translates as ‘ground spider’ and there has been a great deal of speculation about the relationship between the myth of the spider and an aboriginal race of people who supposedly lived in the north of Japan. The Koropok-Guru or Pit Dwellers of Northern Japan were a distinct racial group who dwelt in underground pits until around the 6th century and were anathema to the incoming races that form the dominant group of peoples in recent times. It seems as though these pit dwellers (also called Tsuchigumo) were wiped out by the incoming Ainu peoples whose roots are in Russia. The Ainu still form a distinctive racial group in modern Japan, finally recognised as such towards the end of the twentieth century. It is possible, (although not proven) that the Tsuchigumo of myth is some kind of retelling of these ancient battles. Most of the research that backs up this theory is over one hundred years old and not entirely reliable. At any rate, the Tsuchigumo we are concerned with primarily appears in the story of Minamoto no Raiku. In this great myth the hero Raiko is busy investigating the appearance of gigantic floating skulls. During this quest Raiko falls ill and is confined to bed and ministered to by either a young servant boy, a beautiful woman or a priest depending which you believe. A retainer of Raiko suspects the boy, and his true identity as that of the giant spider is revealed. A chase ensues and there is a fight in a cave in which Raiko kills the beast who then erupts with enormous spiderlings which are in turn destroyed. Kuniyoshi made many great prints of Tsuchigumo and it is useful to compare the Kuniyoshi version of 1845 with say, Kunichika’s masterly triptych of 1866. You will notice that despite the intervening twenty years, there is little or no difference in the rendering of the great spider. The comparison illustrates perfectly the normality of ukiyo-e artists in appropriating each others work for commercial and artistic ends. Ideas of copyright or intellectual property were completely absent in nineteenth century Japan leading to a huge pool of imagery that was copied, modified, recycled and embellished. There is something enviable in this humility and esprit de corps that is quite different from recent western regard for individual genius. The Japanese are no less creative, abundant or disregarded for their tradition and it is refreshing to see such great art that is free from the tiresome hubris of lonely genius touched by God. Nevertheless to our eyes the myth has been responsible for any number of entertaining images and there is little doubt that the tradition of Tsuchigumo has informed recent graphic and literary output, especially in Japan where the imagery has migrated right across the diverse platforms of manga, anime and computer video games.

Tuesday, 5 April 2011

The Care of Japanese Prints

It’s important to know what to do with prints when you buy them; these are after all rare and valuable things and a long term investment. People collect ukiyo-e for a variety of reasons; some are collectors with a real passion for the subject or for a particular artist, others appreciate the art but also wish to amass a substantial portfolio of work which can be realised... sold on some years later for profit. Investment is the key driver in the market and Japanese woodblock prints are fast becoming valuable commodities and a good hedge against inflation.

Given that some prints are very valuable indeed, the question is what to do with them when you have them. At Toshidama Gallery we acquire prints from sources all over the world, and more often than not they arrive rolled in cardboard tubes, or folded loose in a padded bag, and backed with all the wrong papers and mounts. The first thing we do is try to remedy these problems to prevent further damage.

There are two schools of thought with regard to the safe storage of prints. Some people feel strongly about not mounting prints; while others, like ourselves, take the long view that if properly mounted, the print is kept flat, easily managed and better protected for long term storage. At Toshidama the first thing we do is to remove prints from inappropriate mounts and flatten them if they have suffered curling. We never join triptychs but nor do we separate them if they have been previously joined.

Prints should be mounted professionally using rice paper conservation tape which these days is fully reversible. The board should be acid free conservation mounts since the acid in ordinary card will encourage the print to yellow and go brittle. Window mounts in the same material definitely enhance the look of a print but also protect the surface from contact by other sheets. Finally, we store prints in acid free mylar protective conservation sleeves which prevent humidity changes and protect against accidental damage. This is how our prints are shipped; flat-packed in custom, stiffened mailers, ready to be stored directly by the client or framed for display. This saves the purchaser a huge amount of work, who otherwise would have to source a conservation framer to carry out the same job. Prints should be stored out of direct sunlight either flat or vertically and sensible precautions should be taken to avoid damp or mildew.

We recommend that the prints are kept as they are. However the outer frame dimensions can easily be changed without detaching the print from its backing. Early vegetable-dyed prints (pre-1830) should rarely be exposed to light without full spectrum museum quality UV protection glass. Later prints are more hardy and the inexpensive, lesser grade UV glass can be used. We generally use simple dark stained oak frames for ukiyo-e prints. The recent British Museum and Royal Academy Kuniyoshi exhibition used more or less identical frames to our own.The Toshidama Gallery is always happy to advise on conservation matters and to supply framed prints if clients request them.

Monday, 21 March 2011

Utagawa Kunisada/Toyokuni III (1786-1865)  Fight on Benkei's Bridge, 1860

There’s a lot of history and myth making to catch up with in this very fine print. First of all, what is it... what’s going on... how do we find out more? Well, what we can see is two strong men against a dark background fighting on a bridge. The man on the right, seems to have an unfair advantage - he’s much bigger than his opponent and he’s wielding a sword whereas the figure on the left only has a length of bamboo. We might wonder who will win, or indeed who is the aggressor.

Only a very little knowledge is needed to find out about more this print. For a start it might be an idea to identify the artist. Kunisada has a very distinctive signature and is seen here in the Toshidama cartouche in red and yellow. The scene of two men fighting on a bridge is a common subject in ukiyo-e and usually depicts the fight between the heroes Benkei and Minamoto no Yoshitsune, one of the great folk tales of Japanese history.

First, a little background. Saitō Musashibō Benkei was a warrior monk, who lived in 12th century Japan. It is said that he was brought up by monks, was famously strong and tall and that he was a great fighter. When he was seventeen, he became a yamabushi, (a mountain monk) and positioned himself at Gojo Bridge, relieving travellers of their swords before allowing them to cross. His one thousandth victim was Yoshitsune. Yoshitsune was also brought up by monks and was a skillful swordsman; his older brother Yoritomo became head of the Minamoto clan and together they went on to defeat the Taira clan in what is known as the Genpei war of 1180. Where myth and history part company is the tale of Yoshitsune being trained in martial arts by the tengu, mythical half-bird, half-man creatures skilled in martial arts.

The print depicts Benkei with sword and Yoshitsune on the left about to engage in the famous duel. Yoshitsune won the duel and Benkei failed to win his one thousandth consecutive sword. Instead he became Yoshitsune’s loyal retainer, dying with him at the battle of the Koromo river. Yoshitsune is usually depicted much slighter than he is here and Benkei more fearsome; as it is Kunisada has shown Yoshitsune as heavily tattooed, which is again a break from tradition.

Benkei’s final stand - defending the bridge to the castle where his master and family were committing suicide - is also legendary. This last act of courage is widely known as the ‘standing death of Benkei’. It is said that he was so pierced with arrows that his attackers feared to approach him. When they eventually summoned the courage they discovered that Benkei had died standing up. There is a nice resonance with this in modern western culture in the image of the death of Boromir from the 2001 movie of The Fellowship of the Ring. Clearly the persistent image of loyalty and sacrifice has a powerful meaning across all cultures.

This print is available at Toshidama Gallery for £370 less 10% for newsletter subscribers.

Friday, 11 February 2011

What To Look For In A Japanese Print

When most people first start to look at Japanese woodblock prints I suppose that they are struck by the colours or the force of the design, a nagging familiarity or perhaps a sense just of beauty and rightness. Certainly it was this ‘rightness’ that first attracted me to owning these lovely things.

But none of these works of art were produced for their own sake. There are very few scenic pictures in ukiyo-e... there are landscapes but more often than not these served as pictorial guides to famous routes or else as backdrops for actor portraits. Most prints have a story to tell and it’s this aspect of the art that I find so fascinating. Not many people in the west can read Japanese and I have many Japanese friends who find it equally difficult to decipher meaning from these pictures, so where to start?

Most prints conform to sets of rules and the easiest of these to disentangle are the cartouches... the small panels of writing dotted over the surface. Looking at the print opposite, The Modern Comparison of the Thirty-six Poets, we can see how these can give us a greater understanding of the print. (Click image for a larger version.)

The prints in this series compare poets with flowers but in this print we see a portrait of the famous actor Sawamura Tossho II, so what’s going on? What this print is really illustrating is the story of Ume no Yoshibei, a Robin Hood character or otokadate. These were street gangs, the forerunners of the modern day yakuza, who were said to protect people from lawless samurai. In the play, Yoshibei murders a young man for money and during the fight, Yoshibei’s finger is bitten off. The victim turns out to be the brother of Yoshibei’s wife Kuomi. Kuomi finds Yoshibei’s finger in her dead brother's mouth and realises that he has been murdered by her husband. She kills herself in grief, having cut off her own finger. But how do we know that this is Yoshibei? Any theatre lover of Edo (the old name for Tokyo) would have recognised the white herons and black crows on the kimono of Ume no Yoshibei. These devices symbolize innocence and bad luck respectively. This pattern immediately identifies the character of Yoshibei and hence the well known story of tragic violence.

Looking again at the print of Yoshibei, the big box in the top right of the print contains the series title and the print title. The odd shape to the left in red and yellow is Kunisada’s signature and is quickly recognisable. Underneath that is a date and censor seal and beneath that is the carver's seal in yellow and the publisher's seal in white. So, what has this print told us? It is a print by Utagawa Kunisada from June 1862. It was carved by hori Ota Tashichi and published by Hiranoya Shinzo and pictures the famous actor Sawamura Tossho II as the robber Yoshibei, at the same time making a comparison between a modern poet and the flower in the cartouche above.

There are many good books available that carry this kind of information. The Japanese were excellent record keepers so this knowledge is thankfully not lost. The internet, too, provides an excellent resource of detailed knowledge if you know where to look. By putting, ‘herons and crows in kabuki’ into Google for example you will find a link on page one from the excellent kabuki21, identifying Yoshibei. Ukiyo-e signatures are available on many other sites, and so on. Building up knowledge of a print and what exactly it represents is one of the great joys of collecting.

Thursday, 20 January 2011

5% off Kunichika at Toshidama Gallery

Toshidama Gallery newsletter subscribers are now benefitting from regular offers on purchases of Japanese prints at Toshidama Gallery. For the remainder of January and February, newsletter subscribers can have a 5% discount on all the woodblock prints in our current show: Kunichika at The Toshidama Gallery. The newsletter is issued every six weeks or so, you can subscribe here at the gallery and we will not share subscriber details with others and you won’t receive spam and reminders from us either. We look forward to adding you to our mailing list.

Wednesday, 5 January 2011

The Genius of Hirosada

The current exhibition of Japanese prints at the Toshidama Gallery looks at portraits of the kabuki stage. Amongst the pictures on show are several by the artist Konishi Hirosada (ca. 1810-1864). Originally known as Sadahiro, he changed the order of the syllables in his name in 1847.

Hirosada was the leading artist of the Osaka School of printmaking in the mid 19th century. His favoured format was the chuban print (19 x 25 cm) and it is sometimes said that he was a commercial artist and that the smaller print size favoured advertising bills and handouts. Hirosada put far too much into these prints, technically and artistically, for them to have been theatre bills alone. Almost all of his actor prints are scrupulously designed and lavish in production. More often than not the prints used metallic pigments, embossing and burnishing. These lustrous, jewel like prints are closer to English Renaissance drawings in their quality, their brevity and their completeness of design than they are to theatre playbills.

In his theatre portraits he plays delightfully with the tension between flat theatrical space and subtly realised forms and expressions. In the print Onoe Tamizo II as Torii Matasuke we see the troubled Matasuke who has been tricked into killing his master’s wife. This is a study of great subtlety depicting an honourable man whose fate (suicide) awaits him. Within the conventions of the woodblock medium Hirosada conveys Matasuke’s dignity and trustedness but the eyes are troubled and the black background is heavy with foreboding. The delicately realised hand raised hesitatingly to his face opens the space between the flatness of the kimono and the picture surface. The figure is caught in indecision, the eyes gaze to the mid distance, the mouth slumps in dismay. It is an exquisite work which treads a fine line between flat decoration and expressive strength.

By way of comparison we’ve included Holbein’s portrait drawing of Sir Richard Southwell from 1536. It’s interesting to compare both artists’ sparse use of line and emphasis on the face at the expense of other detail. Although the styles are very different, both pictures display insight into the personality of the sitters with equal depth and equal brevity.

Onoe Tamizo II as Torii Matasuke is for sale until the 17th of January at the Toshidama Gallery.